Putting medical students in the patient's shoes

Volunteers with chronic illnesses tutor future doctors.

Suzanne has seen it often: that glaze that comes over a doctor's eyes when she begins to describe her condition and symptoms, the same ones she's been dealing with year after year.

"Many of the doctors were very compassionate, warm and understanding, but others have lacked those qualities," said Suzanne, who has been ill with chronic conditions for years.

"I think it can be discouraging to doctors. They want to fix, help and cure. But for a lot of chronic conditions, it's about management and support," she said.

Patient mentors needed

Patients with chronic illness are needed to volunteer as mentors in the Patient Immersion learning experience. The program will start in late October 2017.

Volunteers must:

  • have a diagnosis of a chronic illness that impacts their life in a significant or daily manner;

  • be willing to be an engaged and positive participant in contributing to students' learning;

  • be willing to share stories related to their experience of being a patient;

  • have regular contact with the health care system throughout the year and be willing to share their experiences with navigating the system.

Please contact: patient.immersion.experience@ualberta.ca
or 780-492-6234.

"With our conditions, there is no immediate fix," added Gerald, who has also been suffering with a chronic condition for years. "It requires a different attitude and perspective from the doctor. We want to instill that attitude and a sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness in the (U of A medical) students."

To help ensure that happens, the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry created the Patient Immersion Experience (PIE) four years ago. The program aims to educate medical students about the fundamentals of clinical practice and the doctor-patient relationship.

"We strongly believe that physicians should be advocates for their patients," said Helly Goez, director, physicianship and longitudinal themes and assistant dean, diversity. "This cannot be done without understanding how health-care systems work and understanding the patient's perspective."

Students participate in the program for two years. They complete several home visits with their 'patient-mentor' where they have guided conversations to help get to know each other and understand how their condition impacts their daily life. The students also accompany their patient-mentors to one medical appointment to help them better understand their personal experiences within the health-care system.

Mentors Gerald and Suzanne said the experience has been as beneficial for them as it has for the students. They became patient mentors in 2016, and Gerald has been volunteering for physical exam sessions for years.

"I think our conversations are so great. I find them helpful, and I'm fascinated by them," said Suzanne. "We sit and we have really good heart-to-heart conversations. I find it very rewarding"

They both look forward to the time they spend with the medical students, they know which tea to make for each of them and love their energy and enthusiasm.

"We wanted to get involved in medical education so that in a small way, but perhaps a larger way than we realized, we would have the opportunity to make a change. We saw this as a way to help mentor and mold the attitudes of future physicians."

Gerald and Suzanne both believe it's important to show future physicians that disability and illness look a lot different at home than they do in a 15-minute appointment at a doctor's office.

"The impact a chronic disease or disability has on your daily life can be huge," said Gerald. "We have seen the students we work with come to understand this and they've become very curious and inquisitive, they want to learn."

Suzanne believes the program helps to foster empathy in the budding physicians.

"I think medicine is a difficult program," said Suzanne. "There's so much to learn and so much involved, but we always need to remember the human side. This is one way that it's being done and it's amazing."

The impact of the program on the students has been profound. Since the students are not involved in the patient-mentor's care, they have the opportunity to build a trusting relationship and learn from them without being worried about solving a problem.

"I got to learn firsthand what my patient-mentor valued in a doctor," said second-year medical student Abby Edmison. "The doctor-patient relationship is so important, especially for patients with chronic illnesses."

Carina Lauzon, a second-year medical student, has found the experience eye-opening. Although the students learn a lot about the diseases and treatments, she considers it's very difficult to teach what it's like living with a chronic illness and she has appreciated her patient-mentor's insight.

"We've become good friends. I've learned so much from her that I don't think I could have ever learned in the classroom or even on the wards when your relationship with a patient is different," said Lauzon.

The program culminates in an art project shared with the patients mentors and their families, reflecting what the students have learned over the last two years.