Patient mentors help teach U of A medical students the importance of connection and compassion

Patient Immersion Experience program matches those with chronic illnesses to physicians-in-training

Keri Sweetman - 15 November 2022

A new group of patient mentors and their matched MD students will meet for the first time this week when the next round of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Patient Immersion Experience (PIE) program launches. 

PIE, which has been running at the University of Alberta since 2013, supports the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s mission to turn out well-rounded physicians who embody the CanMEDs roles as described by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and the College of Family Physicians of Canada, says Lillian Au, director of longitudinal themes for the MD program. Patient mentors help first- and second-year medical students understand health care from the other side of the examining table.

 “Frequently we identify doctors as medical experts, but we’re so much more than that,” says Au, who oversees the PIE program. “If we are empathetic and are good communicators and we advocate for patients, we actually take better care of them.”

The mandatory program matches small groups of students with patient mentors who suffer from a chronic illness or disability. They meet three times in Year 1 and twice in Year 2, and attend a doctor visit together. The experience is capped off by a student-led creative project, to be shared with their mentors at the end of their two years. 

During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings had to take place by Zoom and there was no doctor visit, but Au says they expect to return to in-person visits this academic year, as long as the patient mentors are comfortable with that.

Au says while most of the teaching in medical school comes from medical experts, it’s important for students to hear from patients as well. “In that first two years, there’s a lot of growing that needs to occur. There’s maturation and really understanding who they are and the importance of the doctor-patient relationship and the importance of empathy.”

PIE managed to recruit 80 mentors this year for the 165 first-year MD students, double last year’s number. Their orientation will take place Nov. 14.

We spoke to third-year student Abdel Tayem, who has now completed the PIE program, and his patient mentor Jess Logan, who will be participating again this year. Logan is a U of A student herself, studying exercise physiology in her master’s of science degree. She suffers from Ehler-Danlos syndrome, a chronic connective tissue disorder that results in cardiovascular and gastrointestinal symptoms and severe joint and muscle pain.

Tayem and Logan described what they have gained from the program and how vital it is to be educating a new generation of doctors. (See the final art project from this two-year collaboration)

Q: Jess, why did you want to become involved in the program as a mentor?

A: It’s easy as health-care professionals to really narrow in, when they’re working with a patient, on their list of symptoms or their medical history, and forget that there’s a whole person there. A program like this is an important reminder to med students that any time you’re working with someone with a health condition, particularly when you’re working with people who deal with the health-care system a lot, you’re never looking at just one thing. It’s always a combination of symptoms and how the symptoms impact the actual life of that person.

Q: Abdel, what was it like meeting with Jess during the pandemic?

A: I was really excited about meeting in person and when I found out that it was going to be online, part of me was underwhelmed — until I got to meet Jess. I think there was an expectation that this might become yet another Zoom meeting, but for the large majority of my class, that was not the case. There was so much more we could get out of this than just being on a call and listening to someone speak. You get to interact and experience something that no lecture can give you.

Some of the biggest lessons we learned from Jess were about the human interactions she’s had with her doctors. That’s the kind of thing med school needs to teach us more of. Now that I’m finally in clerkship and I get to employ that, I notice that the patients who give us the biggest thanks or the ones who are most excited about their health care are the ones who feel like they’ve been listened to and cared for on a human basis, not on the perfect checklist or ordering all the right labs.

Q: You’ve said most of the meetings you’ve had were scheduled for one hour but usually lasted 90 minutes or more. Jess, was that tiring?

A: No, they were fantastic listeners and so, so generous and thoughtful in the questions they asked. They really demonstrated a lot of humility in the kinds of questions they were asking and they were clearly coming at it from a place of genuinely wanting to understand and genuinely wanting to improve the types of doctors they are and the interactions they will have with all their future patients.

Q: Abdel, what is the most important thing you learned from Jess?

A: The most encompassing one is … the idea that you have to really take into consideration what the patient is looking for and what their goals are, rather than what you think is the expected or ideal outcome … paying attention to and working toward the patient’s goals, rather than just what the diagnostic algorithm tells me.

Q: Jess, what did you get out of being a PIE mentor?

A: It was a really, really fantastic opportunity for me to take a step back and look at the type of interactions I’ve had with the medical system compared to the types of interactions I wish I had had. But it was also a deeply uplifting experience in how I hope and expect to see health care adapt in the coming years. It makes me excited to see where things will head because I think the university is doing its part, and the students are doing their part, to become genuinely very good doctors. I have no doubt they will be amazing.

PIE is always looking for future mentors. To sign up, email the program at or to learn more, go to