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rmed students make calls

Students reach out to patients isolated by pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented hospitalized patients with an unusual challenge: No visitors. To combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, hospital leaders, including those at Upstate Medical University, have allowed visitors only in the most dire situations. That left hospitalized patients— all patients, not just those with COVID—without the companionship and support offered by family and friends coming by.

Recognizing the issue, Upstate Medical University Assistant Professor of Medicine Brian Changlai, MD, turned to students from the Rural Medical Scholars Program, known as RMED, for help. Changlai undertook the task in his role as associate director of patient experience for the hospitalist division at Upstate.

 “The students were available to the patients as not only a clinical resource to help answer questions about COVID or other medical issues, but also as an outlet for the patients in solitude,” he explained. Working from their homes, the students would call patients on their hospital room phones.

Danielle Clifford, one of the RMED students involved, had been doing clinical work at the Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic when, to help ensure the safety of students and the community, Upstate prohibited students from all direct patient care opportunities. That didn’t change a simple fact for Clifford and others who volunteered: “We’re in medical school. We want to be able to still help, to hopefully make a difference.”

Working off a spreadsheet from Changlai, student volunteers phoned patients. They had a preset list of questions, but also simply conversed. “Would you like to talk today?” was often the first question. They asked how patients were feeling, if they had questions about their care and if they understood their diagnosis. Shortly after the project started, students got access to electronic patient records so they could be more informed when talking with patients.

At times, patients seemed to appreciate the conversation. “Someone just to say I care how you are doing,” said student volunteer Claire Englert.

Other times, the call was vital. Patients alerted students to difficulties they were having, or to pain. Student volunteer Jacqueline Maier had one patient who complained about her breathing. Maier sent a text to the team caring for the patient, and “they rushed in and gave her an albuterol treatment.”

Englert recalled a patient with whom she had been talking who had a simple issue she had not mentioned. “Anything else I can help you with?” Englert asked at the end of the call. It turned out the patient was hungry. Englert was able to contact the care team and get her a meal. 

Changlai, who had not worked with RMED students before, praised the volunteers. They were, he said, “exceptional across the board and are promising future doctors.”

For their part, the student volunteers said Changlai listened to them and incorporated their suggestions into the process. And, they said, they learned from the experience. “I think it helped me become more compassionate and understanding – to slow down a little bit and talk with my patients,” said Maier.

Changlai said the program was ongoing and might continue even after the ban on visitors is lifted.

Caption: Upstate Medical University College of Medicine students from the Rural Medical Scholars Program have been phoning hospitalized patients isolated by the ban on visitors prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the students participating are, from left, Danielle Clifford, Jacqueline Maier and Claire Englert.