Patient Support Corps is a Win-Win for Students and Patients

First- and second-year medical students often crave meaningful one-on-one interactions with patients. A new program pairs students from the Geisel School of Medicine with patients at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center—for the benefit of both.

"During the first two years of medical school, students can be starved for patient contact," says Dr. Dale Vidal, a professor of surgery at the Geisel School of Medicine who directs the program, called the Patient Support Corps (PSC). "You're just buried in books until you hit the clinical rotations in the third and fourth years."

Now funded by a generous grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the PSC began as a small pilot program in 2011 within the Comprehensive Breast Program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center. The PSC—modeled on a program developed at the University of San Francisco—selects and trains medical students from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and undergraduates from Dartmouth College to support patients at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH.

"What's so different about this program is that it really forces you as the student volunteer to absolutely focus on the patient's concerns . . . to not insert what you think is best into the conversation," says Asha Clarke, a member of the Geisel Class of '16 and a PSC volunteer. "It's such a different skill, and it's so valuable to me as I train to become a physician."

PSC student volunteers assist patients in two ways. First, they use a structured coaching process to help patients develop question lists before an appointment. The student types up the questions, reviews them with the patient, and then sends them to the patient's doctor so the doctor can be sure to address all of the patient's concerns. The second way that PSC volunteers provide support is by taking notes and capturing an audio recording for the patient during the appointment.

"When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I felt like I had been punched in the gut," says Christine Giddings, a Dartmouth-Hitchcock patient who has participated in the PSC. "The doctor would say one thing and after that I would hear blah, blah, blah because my mind couldn't go any farther."

When it came time for Giddings to consider breast reconstruction, the PSC was up and running in the Comprehensive Breast Program. She was offered the free service—which is run through Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Center for Shared Decision Making—and matched with Clarke.

"It was great having Asha there because it meant somebody was taking notes, somebody was recording, and I could totally focus on the doctor," says Giddings. "Just that one piece alone took a tremendous load off me."

So far the PSC has served more than 50 patients, mostly from the breast reconstruction service. With the support of the recent grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the program will now have the resources to hire a program coordinator, train more student volunteers, expand into other clinical areas, and help launch similar programs at other medical schools. Vidal is also working to incorporate the PSC into Geisel's new MD curriculum—which includes more patient contact in the first two years of medical school.

That's great news for students—and patients.