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Dartmouth Ears Program: Learning to Listen

Students at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth are often seeking out ways to become involved in programs that allow them to customize their education and express creativity. Though the programs are not always directly connected to medicine, the overall goal is always to educate them on the best way to serve the communities they’ll be entering as physicians and scientists.

Dartmouth Ears is one of those very programs. Co-founded in 2010 by Geisel students Chris Audu, PhD, MD ’16, and Song Li, MD ’11, it is a volunteer service-learning program that pairs Geisel medical students with Dartmouth College undergraduates, and organizes patient visitations to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, NH and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in White River Junction, VT. The students typically pair off—one medical student with one undergraduate student—and visit patients to listen to their life stories, and not necessarily talk about why the patient is in the hospital or discuss their diagnosis.

Audu and Li started the program after working in clinical settings at DHMC and observing that patients without visitors didn’t always follow their treatment plans as well as patients with solid support systems did. Their hope was that visiting patients would provide them with the psychosocial support they needed for their emotional health, complement the clinical care they were receiving for their physical health, and improve their overall outcome at the hospital. In the process, the students found that they were also learning a great deal from the experience.

“We learn a lot about the basic science, and about disease processes. Then in year three, we're in the wards and we're expected to interact with patients,” says Audu. “Throughout that whole process we're coming to them from a medical perspective. We're not really coming to them a lot trying to know who they are socially. So, part of the added benefit for students who get involved (in Dartmouth Ears) is that they can really engage the patient on a social level and get to see the patient as more than a patient, but also as a person who has a job, who has a family, or has a unique history that they tell you about. It's very rewarding in that sense.”

Since its founding, Dartmouth Ears has continued to recruit students and has expanded their visitations to the White River Junction VAMC to work with veterans in the Mental Health Services unit.

“I think working with the veterans is a great experience,” says Jie Deng, a Geisel MD-PhD student who launched Dartmouth Ears at the VA with the help of the VAMC volunteer office. “The experience between DHMC and the VA are similar in that Geisel and College students are paired together to visit patients and offer psychosocial support. However, the patient population at the VA is unique from that at DHMC. Working with veterans, students have the exciting opportunity to give back to veterans who have served our country and I think a lot of students leave there feeling even more gratitude for our servicemen and servicewomen.”

For Deng, who has been a leader of the program, the experience of volunteering through Dartmouth Ears and speaking with patients bridges the gap between delivering clinical care and compassionate care.

“I think community service in general is important, just to have that sense of gratitude for where you are in your own life and to give back to your community,” she says. “But for medical students in particular, I think it's especially important because we come into this field wanting to help people. And with our profession, helping people encompasses a whole spectrum of things. It's not just delivering the medicine. It's supporting people in ways that are very, very necessary for them to improve their overall health.”