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It takes a village: volunteers teach future healthcare professionals how to connect with patients

It’s a common occurrence: Patients leave the doctor’s office more confused than when they arrived. Healthcare practitioners are good at their jobs, but often lack the communication skills needed to work with patients and explain their decisions.

That’s why the University of Minnesota has partnered with the community to teach pharmacy, medical and nursing students how to connect with their patients through proper communication.

“Community teachers” volunteer to allow students into their homes where students practice establishing a therapeutic relationship with a patient. The students ask the community teachers questions about their health, and the community teachers grade the students based on how well they understood them, and how comfortable they felt speaking with the student.

This program has been in place at the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy since 2001. Over the years, the program has shown that proper communication with patients can improve overall health outcomes. The program also focuses on social determinants of health — conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.

“You have to really understand the life someone is living and the context before you can help them,” said program director Amy Pittenger, Pharm. D., Ph.D.

Since the program first launched, it has been offered solely to students in the College of Pharmacy. Pittenger recently led the efforts to transition the program to an interprofessional experience by expanding it to include students in the School of Nursing and Medical School.

Part of the 1Health Curriculum, Pittenger hopes this interprofessional collaboration with the medical and nursing students will help students apply interprofessional education coursework in a real-world setting.

“I hope this allows them to experience the power of collaboration while further developing their own uni-professional skills,” Pittenger said.

When pharmacy student Lidiane Gabeira first began the program, she was afraid that she would run out of topics to discuss with her community teacher, but quickly found that conversation ran smoothly. She said the program matched well with her courses, giving her hands-on experience with what she was learning in the classroom.

“For me to interact with someone rather than just learning from the book is so much cooler,” Gabeira said. “I’m going to remember those things. I remember so much from what I learned from the patient.”

Over 140 volunteers have participated in the Community Teachers program. Some have participated for almost ten years.

Amy Olson has been a Community Teacher for a number of years. She enjoys spending time and sharing her experiences with students.

“I believe a ‘partnership’ with your healthcare provider is the way to approach good health,” Olson said. “I hope to provide [students] with a small foundation from which they build their careers and learn how to communicate better with their patients.”

For more information on the Community Teachers program, follow this link.