School of Medicine Celebrates 20 Years of Service-Learning

Posted in GUMC Stories

AUGUST 21, 2015—In 1995, the Georgetown University School of Medicine implemented a service-learning program to teach medical students to recognize and address community health priorities. By 1999, the optional program consisted of 70 students, six faculty team leaders and eight community partners. Today, the required course has grown to include 200 students, 27 faculty team leaders and 29 community partners.

The Evolution

Margie Rodan, ScD, now an associate professor of nursing at George Mason University, was instrumental to the program development in 1995.

“In the department of family medicine, there was a growing commitment to teaching community health and population health,” said Rodan. “There was a sense of the Jesuit tradition of being in service to others. It was just a question of where to start.”

Rodan started with the Health Professions Schools in Service to the Nation (HPSISN) grant with her co-investigator, Frank Silagy, MD, PhD. Sponsored by the Corporation for National Service and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the grant funded programs included multi-site service-learning for health professions students. With that grant, Rodan successfully funded a service-learning pilot program as an elective for students in the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing & Health Studies.

“It was popular from the start,” said Jay Siwek, MD , vice chair and professor in the department of family medicine at Georgetown. “We had to turn away students because we didn’t have enough slots. So that was very motivating, and every year we tried to piece together more funding, more community sites and more faculty.”  

By 2006, service-learning was added as a component to Introduction to Healthcare, making it mandatory for the entire class, or approximately 175 students. By 2009, service-learning had become its own course, taken by 200 first-year medical students each year.

Learning from the Community

Students are hosted by one of 29 community sites that serve a variety of populations including those affected by domestic violence, non-native English speakers, school-aged children, homeless people, senior citizens and people with disabilities. The students work as a group over the course of their first semester to serve in the community. Throughout the course, students working with underserved populations learn that they are not simply in need, but are resourceful and resilient within the context of their environment.

“If we didn’t have community partners from whom our students could learn, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this,” said Donna Cameron, PhD , director of service-learning at Georgetown School of Medicine. “They host our students, they invite them to come in and learn.”

At the beginning of the semester, first-year medical students rank their top three choices from the 29 community partnerships. They are then assigned to a team led by a faculty member or community organizer. The student teams then work with the community organization to complete a service project specifically designed for that organization. At the end of the course, students present their experiences and what they were able to accomplish at their community sites.

“Most importantly, the service-learning program provides students with a unique opportunity to reflect and understand the complexities of decisions and outcomes faced by underserved populations apart from the often-cited statistics that frequently marginalize their lives,” said Debbie Vargas-Collins, MPH , program coordinator in the department of family medicine.

Last year, a group of medical students that were assigned to Moten Elementary School in Southeast Washington developed and taught small-group lessons about healthy eating, the digestive system, the respiratory system and more. The medical students may have been in the role of a teacher, but during their final presentation to the service-learning class, the group noted, “We came to make a difference in their lives, but really, these students were the ones who made a difference in our lives.”

“Every year the medical students ask the participants what advice they have for them as future doctors,” said Cameron. “And they’re always stunned by that advice.”

In fact, the children from Moten Elementary School gave the medical students sound advice such as “don’t say medical words all the time,” and “be patient and listen when patients talk.”  

The Impact

When Catherine Brahe, M’18, took service-learning last year, her community site was Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit that works with visually disabled people. For Brahe, working at a community site brought concepts she was learning in the classroom to life.

“In our doctoring courses we talk a lot about population health and social determinants of health and it’s helpful to see that in action,” said Brahe. “It puts it all in perspective and you realize this is exactly what you have been learning in class.”

Brahe’s service-learning experience also informed her vision of the type of doctor she hopes to become.

“It really makes you think, what can I do as a future physician to refer my patients to organizations like this? How can I find that bridge from the medical side to finding people services that can increase the quality of their lives? I think that helps us going forward in terms of always thinking about what you can do for the patient beyond your exam room or beyond the hospital,” said Brahe.

The impact of service-learning on Brahe and thousands of students before her is immense, but the ripple effects are even greater.

“If you do the math on the number of students and the number of hours and the number of sites that this has impacted, this has really had a monumental impact on the community,” said Siwek.

Leigh Ann Renzulli
GUMC Communications