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Medical students walk in patients’ shoes through new OHSU program

School of Medicine offering teaches health care challenges first-hand
three men visiting on a couch in the lobby of the hospital
OHSU medical students Jared Edwards (left) and Tajwar "Taj" Taher (right) talk with Jeff Stevenson before Stevenson's medical appointment at OHSU. Each student spent a year partnered with Stevenson to learn about health care from the patient perspective. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Navigating the health care system can become a full-time job for patients with complex medical challenges.

Jeff Stevenson, a retired chef who lives in The Dalles, Ore., knows this well. He has suffered at least three heart attacks, relies on an artificial pump to keep his heart working, has struggled with diabetes, and had bariatric surgery so he can be eligible for a heart transplant.

Stevenson juggles many appointments with different medical providers as a result. Fortunately, he hasn’t had to walk this health care journey alone for the past two years.

He has been joined by two medical students through an OHSU School of Medicine effort that helps students understand the challenges patients face and learn the importance of professionals from various disciplines working together to meet patient needs.

Stevenson attributes support and encouragement from those two students for helping him get his diabetes under control and being about halfway to his 110-pound weight loss goal.

Medical teamwork

Nineteen such patients have received similar assistance through OHSU’s Student Navigator Project since it started in the fall of 2016. The project is offered to first-year medical students as an alternative to preceptorships, which typically have students observe physicians as they work in a clinic.

“The Student Navigator Project is teaching students the big picture of the many aspects that make up the health care system,” said the project’s director Reem Hasan, M.D., who is also an assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the OHSU School of Medicine.

young man, dark beard, glasses
Tajwar "Taj" Taher
man with reddish beard, moustache
Jared Edwards

The first student who partnered with Stevenson was Jared Edwards, who is now a third-year student. Edwards accompanied Stevenson to appointments with physicians, nutritionists, social workers and others.

“Jared was really good at giving everything a positive spin and keeping my attitude high,” Stevenson said of his first student partner. “He called me every week, asking ‘How’s it going,’ and provided positive reinforcement.”

Amazing strides

Edwards helped identify a diabetes medicine that worked well and was affordable, and Stevenson’s diabetes was under control about a month after the two first met. With his diabetes in check, Stevenson was then able to have a gastric sleeve surgery during the summer of 2017. The ultimate goal is to lose enough weight that he’s eligible to be placed on the heart transplant wait list.

Tajwar “Taj” Taher became Stevenson’s second student in the fall of 2017. Like Edwards, Taher attends Stevenson’s appointments and checks in between appointments over the phone.

“Jeff has made some amazing strides in his health,” Taher said. “Even though he’s now pretty well roped into the various medical services he needs, it’s still nice to be able to help him make sure all the different aspects of his care come together.”

Both Edwards and Taher say their time participating in the Student Navigator Project has helped them better understand how complicated health care can be and that conditions can’t easily improve unless a patient also has the social support they need.

“Adding a new prescription or changing an exercise routine can be a shock to a person’s life,” Edwards said “I keep that in the back of my mind when I see patients.”

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