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School of Medicine students quickly ramp up to help manage crush of calls to local health centers

Student volunteers assist with public questions and concerns about COVID-19 pandemic

While the novel coronavirus is disrupting every aspect of normalcy, the pandemic is also creating opportunities—for learning and community service, as faculty and students at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have discovered by stepping up to fill an urgent need at local community health centers.

All implemented within 48 hours, close to 100 first- to fourth-year medical students and physician-assistant students have been deployed as volunteers to help manage the crush of inquiries to call centers from a worried and confused public.

They’re answering and navigating calls at the Neighborhood Family Practice Community Health Centers location on Ridge Road in Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health location in Parma and at the University Hospitals (UH) administrative offices on Warrensville Center Road in Shaker Heights.

“And we’re still deploying,” said Amy Wilson-Delfosse, professor of pharmacology and associate dean for curriculum at the School of Medicine, who is directing the effort with Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, director of Foundations of Clinical Medicine at the School of Medicine and director of Preventive Medicine and Community Health Engagement for the physician assistant program, and Lisa Navracruz, an assistant professor at the school’s Center for Community Health Integration.

“What you’re hearing,” Wilson-Delfosse said, “is a real synergy of the students receiving medical training by having the opportunity to talk with these patients who call in, and also the community benefiting from the enormous talent that’s held within our student body as our students work to respond to the immediate and significant need.”

Among the many faculty and students involved, Debra Leizman, associate professor of medicine at the School of Medicine and director of the internal medicine clerkship at UH, and Heidi Gullett, an associate professor managing the effort at the county Board of Health location, have been overseeing the effort.

Navracruz said students are gaining clinical training and are able to work on their patient communication skills while simultaneously responding to the community’s critical need. That opportunity presented itself as the pandemic interfered with traditional approaches to student clinical outpatient visits.

“We were looking for a way to have our students still help the clinical sites, to still get the education of talking with patients, of hearing their stories, helping answer their questions to address their fears,” Navracruz said. “And so we designed this program in which our students are in administrative locations answering the phone lines and helping with the volume of calls that are coming in, some of which are general medical questions and some of which are COVID-19 specific questions. Our students are in a perfect position to do this.”   

Fourth-year medical student Lucy Li, who is helping administer call center inquiries at UH, said the experience is allowing students to improve their clinical-decision skills in consultation with managers to make sure the public’s questions and concerns are sufficiently and properly addressed.

“What we’re really learning,” Li said, “is how to respond to patients appropriately and how the decision process works.”  

Third-year medical student Andrea Szabo, assisting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health location, said she was tasked with reaching out to people who may have come in contact with patients who have tested positive for the virus, providing direction and advice on next steps. 

“I’ve learned that we can’t always be prepared for everything, but we can pull from some of the tools and knowledge that we have,” Szabo said.

Rowland-Seymour said it was gratifying to see how quickly this effort ramped up and was overwhelmed by how passionate the students are to serve the community.

“They want to help; they want to be there,” she said. “They want to be using all their gifts and they want to be a part of the response.”

For more information, contact Bill Lubinger at: