Medical Students Hit the Streets to Treat Patients

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A group of medical students and doctors at the University at Buffalo in upstate New York are stepping outside the comforts of a hospital setting to give treatment and dispense medical advice to people who rarely get the care or attention they need and deserve.

Back in March, the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences launched the UB HEALS program. The HEALS stands for Homeless Health Education Awareness and Leadership in Service.

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, medical students and doctors from the University at Buffalo volunteer to visit bus stations, homeless shelters, and venture under bridges in search of homeless individuals who rarely, if ever, receive medical attention.

The doctors-in-training take off their white coats and bring a backpack full of supplies, helping them to keep things as informal as possible for people who tend to shy away from doctors.

“I think a lot of us got involved because this is why we got into medicine – helping people who have the greatest needs,” explains second-year medical student Jillian Smith.

The medical students don’t try to do too much with the people they see; instead, they give them a nudge in the right direction. The soon-to-be doctors provide a basic exam, discuss with the patient any issues they discover, and encourage them to seek more formal medical treatment.

The program seems to be making headway with those it strives to help. “When we started, so much of our work was building rapport,” says Smith. “There are people now who know us by name, and there are also brand-new people who say, ‘I heard about your program.'”

The program also solves another problem that homeless have with regard to medical treatment, which is transportation. For those who can’t physically get to a doctor’s office, UB HEALS comes to them.

The program also appears to be having a profound impact on the students. “It gets students out of the bubble they might be in,” says Dr. David Milling, an associate professor of clinical medicine. “It opens their eyes.”

The UB HEALS program is constantly evolving, trying to cover more areas and offer more services. It is also a great example of a university providing outreach to help its community, creating a blueprint that hopefully other universities and medical schools will emulate.