Blog Post

One hospital's secret weapon to tackling social determinants: Volunteer medical students

July 21, 2017

    We know that social determinants of health can derail even the best clinical care, yet many organizations lack clearly defined processes and "owners" for the tasks of identifying non-clinical needs and connecting patients to services. Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health, recently told us how they incorporated medical students into their Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH) workflow to tackle patients' social needs.

    Through a partnership with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), Lankenau engages volunteer medical students to assess patients' non-clinical needs and connect them with community-based resources. The program serves a dual purpose: It helps patients overcome barriers to care and inspires future doctors to take a more holistic approach to treatment. 

    Patients connected with essential social services

    At Lankenau Medical Associates, a primary care practice, patients take a social needs survey while waiting to see their provider. Survey topics include whether patients are able to afford medication, have health insurance, or are running out of food before the end of the month. The survey also asks about patients' transportation, employment, housing, nutrition, and day-to-day living. Based on the patients' answers, the care team may notify the volunteer Medical Student Advocate (MSA).

    The MSA, a second-year medical student at PCOM, reviews the results and identifies available community resources to help patients. The MSA either meets with the patients during their visits or calls during follow-up to further discuss their needs and existing supports. The list of the available 600 resources is maintained on a wiki page, making it free and easy to update.

    Patients have an average of two major identifiable social needs. The three issues most commonly addressed by the program are lack of preventive care such as mammograms and diabetes screenings, low adherence to follow-up appointments, and food insecurity.

    In the first three years, the MSAs identified 2,267 social needs and served 852 patients.

    Program equips medical students with tools to change the health care landscape

    Given the changing nature of care delivery, future physicians must be equipped to work in collaboration with an expanded care team and address both clinical and non-clinical patient challenges. A majority of student participants agreed that the program provided them with three educational opportunities 1) preclinical patient interaction; 2) exposure to the social determinants of health and population health management; and 3) participation in an interdisciplinary team.

    After completing the program, one MSA noted, "[Patients] just need someone to be on their side, to be on their team and take that extra step.''



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