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From left: medical students Danielle Clifford, Claire Englert and Jacqueline Maier. (provided photos)
From left: medical students Danielle Clifford, Claire Englert and Jacqueline Maier. (provided photos)

Patients needed companionship; medical students stepped up




The COVID-19 pandemic presented hospitalized patients with an unusual challenge: No visitors.

To combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, hospital leaders, including those at Upstate University Hospital, allowed visitors only in the direst situations (until an easing of restrictions in early 2021). That prolonged left hospitalized patients — all patients, not just those with COVID-19 — without the companionship and support offered by visits from family and friends during a large part of the pandemic.

Recognizing the issue, Brian Changlai, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Upstate, 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 explains. Working from their homes, the students would call patients on their hospital room phones.

RMED student Danielle Clifford 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 they 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 whether 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.

Patients seemed to appreciate the conversation, having “someone just to say, ‘I care how you are doing,’” says student volunteer Claire Englert.

At 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 praised the volunteers. They were “exceptional across the board — and are promising future doctors.”

Upstate Health magazine's fall 2020 cover

This article appears in the fall 2020 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

Read the full issue online at issuu.com.

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