Innovative program puts medical students in the patient's shoes

    Volunteers with chronic illness needed for Patient Immersion Experience program.

    By Shelby Soke on September 7, 2017

    The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry is looking for patients with chronic illness to volunteer as mentors for an innovative program that connects medical students with members of the community. The Patient Immersion Experience (PIE) 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.”


    Over the course of two years, the students complete several home visits with their ‘patient-mentor’ and accompany them to one medical appointment.


    Current patient-mentors 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 was first launched in the U of A’s MD program in the 2013–2014 school year as a mandatory component of a physicianship course.


    Tracey Hillier, associate dean, MD Program, is thankful to all of the patient-mentors who have participated over the years. “This wouldn’t be possible without the invaluable perspectives of the patient-mentors. They really are helping to shape the next generation of physicians,” said Hillier. “We hope that as students continue in their training and future practice, they will have lasting empathy for all patients they will interact with.”


    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.


    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.


    If you are interested in participating please contact patient.immersion.experience@ualberta.ca or 780-492-6234.