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SUNY Upstate program hopes to change medical student stereotypes about the elderly

A new program at SUNY Upstate Medical University hopes to change stereotypes about the elderly, while providing medical students with their first substantive patient contact experience. The first year of the program, called LinkAges, pairs first-year medical students with healthy senior citizens for a series of health assessments and nutrition and blood pressure screenings.

The program, which became part of the curriculum this fall, breaks new ground in that it enables students in their first year of medical school to experience patient contact, which is usually reserved for third and fourth-year medical school students.

"This program provides us with a unique experience for our students," said Sharon Brangman, M.D., associate professor and chief of the geriatrics section in the department of medicine. "Students are able to apply the clinical skills they learn in class to actual patients, while at the same time meet 'well elders' or healthy seniors. We are accomplishing all this in the first year of medical school."

Breaking the stereotypes of older adults as being frail and sickly is a key goal of the program. About one-third of all patients seen during a student's medical clerkship are individuals over the age of 65 and many are in need of constant medical care. "Students do not see the healthy seniors who live full lives each day," Brangman said. "LinkAges enables students to meet 'well elders' and may help to reframe some of the stereotypes they have regarding the elderly."

Students dressed in white doctor coats, stethoscopes dangling from their necks, take blood pressure readings and interview their patient about issues relating to health, lifestyle and nutrition. Students then submit these health assessments as part of the class homework.

Perhaps the most useful feedback in this program does not come from the faculty, but rather the senior citizen. It's a golden opportunity for Marjorie Fox of East Syracuse to tell these future physicians a thing or two about what makes good bedside manner. "Every physician has the same knowledge of medicine, so what really separates the good doctors from the rest is their ability to communicate and be compassionate about their patient's well-being," said Fox. "I want students to know how important it is for a patient to feel comfortable with their doctor."

Seniors involved in the program members of OASIS, University Hospital's program for older adults, and residents of a local senior residence center.

The LinkAges program represents a significant push by SUNY Upstate to strengthen its geriatric medicine education. In the second year of LinkAges, which will begin next spring, students will make visits to home-bound elders in association with Central New York Visiting Nurses Association and the Veterans Administration Home based Primary Care Program. This phase of the program will enable students to interview and examine patients and assess the impact common diseases have on the patient's daily living activities. Programs for upperclassmen will provide contact with elders who require assisted living and more skilled care.

"The entire program really helps integrate geriatric education into our medical school," Brangman said. "That's a new concept for most medical schools. I think we are one of the first to look at how geriatric education can span all four years of medical school."

LinkAges is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Association of Academic Medical Schools and the John Hartford Foundation.