Student-led health literacy program helps underserved patients

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Virginia Commonwealth University pre-med student Anand Gandhi spends much of his spare time volunteering to work at local free clinics. He cares for some of the city’s most vulnerable, including homeless patients, suffering from HIV and AIDS, heart disease, substance abuse and hypertension.  

While Gandhi felt that providing treatment was important, he desired to do more to help patients prevent illnesses. He came up with a simple solution that could have a major impact on improving the health of his patients and others suffering from chronic illnesses.

With help from a $41,000 grant from the VCU Quest Innovation Fund, Gandhi worked with VCU partners and the Daily Planet to develop and implement a program called HELP, also known as the Health Education Literacy Program, for underserved patients.

“While free clinics do an unparalleled job in caring for the health of this population on a symptomatic basis, not many preventive measures have been created throughout the community to tackle the root of the problem: health literacy,” Gandhi said. “I wanted to create a program that could address this problem and create something fueled by college students, resulting in minimal cost and opportunities for students to have hands-on health care experience.”

Gandhi and the 20 fellow students currently volunteering in the program are part of VCU Acceleration, an undergraduate program for students interested in careers in the health sciences. Students participating in HELP have received instruction from physicians, pharmacists and health educators on topics such as how to develop effective strategies and materials to improve health literacy and effective techniques to engage patients. During the three-to–four-week training session, students learned how to teach patients about prescriptions, over-the-counter drug labels, food labels and the importance of nutrition on overall health.

Students also traveled to New York Methodist Hospital to learn about Health Smarts While You Wait, a volunteer health literacy program established by the hospital in 2006 and the model for the HELP program.  

“The trip made me much more conscious of what we should keep in mind when communicating with patients, because they are relying on us to be professional, personable and effective when teaching them about their health,” said Justin Clary, a second-year pre-dental student. “The Brooklyn team also taught us very helpful teaching methods, including how to avoid sounding pretentious when working with patients.”  

HELP involves a partnership with the Daily Planet and the VCU Health Education and Community Resources Committee. Two-hundred patients with complex social and medical needs who receive care in the Virginia Coordinated Care ACC2 Complex Care clinic and the Daily Planet clinic will be enrolled in the program.

“The clinics participating employ a multidisciplinary group of professionals, including social workers, psychologists, pharmacists, nurse care managers and behavioral health specialists,” Gandhi said. “It would be difficult to meet patients’ psychosocial needs without a multidisciplinary team.”

Trained students will provide one-on-one educational sessions with patients. They’ll identify the barriers, including literacy and psychosocial factors, such as not having enough food to eat, that result in patients not adhering to medication and nutritional guidelines.

“It's wonderful to have an effect on people whether we teach the information ourselves or if we serve as the link between them and what they need,” Clary said.


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