The Tufts University School of Medicine has long had a commitment to public service. Recently, the school has taken this commitment to a new level with one of the most robust community service learning (CSL) programs in any United States medical school.
“We consider active citizenship to be an essential component of being a great physician,” said Scott Epstein, dean of educational affairs at the School of Medicine. “Practicing physicians need to look beyond their individual patients to see larger trends in communities and to understand cultural, socioeconomic or other impacts on health. These service learning opportunities get students working in diverse communities and understanding how to make those connections. It makes them better doctors.”
Prior to graduation, every medical student is required to complete at least 50 hours of community service. With approximately 200 students in each class, this service can have a huge positive impact on the community.
To ensure the quality of the experience for both the students and the organizations served, the School of Medicine recently brought on Jennifer Greer-Morrissey as the part-time community service learning coordinator. The former director of Emerson College’s service learning program, Greer-Morrissey has extensive experience facilitating student learning through service and working with partner organizations in Boston’s Chinatown.
“These experiences are providing a direct educational benefit to our students,” Greer-Morrissey said. “They’re building skills relevant to their development as physicians and discovering the issues, populations and areas of medicine that they may want to focus on in their future careers.”
As coordinator of the program, Greer-Morrissey is tracking student progress and helping them get the most out of the experience while engaging community partners and Tufts faculty. In addition to Greer-Morrissey, the program is supported by over 50 faculty reviewers, course directors and staff as well as partners from over 25 community organizations.
“Many medical schools have some sort of service learning component, but Tufts has a uniquely strong program,” Greer-Morrissey said. “We have higher requirement than many schools and a structure to ensure the program is mutually beneficial to students and community members alike.”
Dean Epstein added that they’re looking to help other medical schools similarly strengthen their programs.
“We plan to write up and publish how we’ve restructured and expanded our curriculum, so other institutions can learn from what we’ve done here,” dean Epstein said. “We’ve developed a very unique model including our strong service learning requirement and partnerships with Tufts’ undergraduate programs.”
Part of what makes the program so unique is its flexibility. Students must complete their service within a 12-month period of time, but they are free to undertake it at any point during their medical education.
“Medical students are extremely focused and organized, but they have very busy schedules,” Greer-Morrissey explained. “We’re making this program successful through flexible management and support throughout a student’s experience.”
Some of that support comes in the form of student preparation before they start their CSL placement and reflection opportunities once they complete it.
Through a partnership with Tisch College, the School of Medicine has developed an online course to help medical students understand the fundamentals of community service – how to enter a new community, recognize community assets and partner with organizations. All students are expected to complete the course prior to undertaking their community service. Once they have completed their 50 hours, students must submit a final paper that helps them synthesize the experience.
“The partnership with Tisch College has been fantastic,” dean Epstein said. “Throughout the process of revising and implementing our curriculum, Tisch College has been a tremendous asset in shaping and developing this program. We truly couldn’t do this without their support.”
Tisch College senior program manager Mindy Nirenberg played a key role in developing the structure of the revised CSL program and led the development of the student preparation courses. Additionally, Shirley Mark, director of Tisch College’s Lincoln Filene Center for Community Partnerships, helped ensure that the program would provide real benefit to community partners. In addition, Tisch College is providing financial support for the CSL Coordinator as the program gets off the ground.
“As this program becomes more robust, I’m looking to expand opportunities for reflection and discussion while students are working in their service placements,” Greer-Morrissey said. “I plan to cultivate opportunities for students to talk to each other about what they are working on and to learn not only from their own experience, but from their peers.”
This spring, Greer-Morrissey is piloting a new “CSL Peer Facilitator” component which will include peer-led facilitated discussions about student experiences in the community.
“The CSL Peer Facilitator program will provide students a space for their own reflection while also learning about neighborhoods, patient populations and health issues different from the ones they are directly involved with through their own CSL experience,” Greer-Morrissey explained.
Part of the flexibility of the CSL program is that it allows students to select from an existing project or to design something new. Currently, existing CSL projects include:
IDEAS in Medicine
Started last year by two medical students, IDEAS in Medicine engages over 30 medical students in serving as tutors and mentors to 100 area seventh graders. In partnership with the school district, the founding students developed and implemented an interactive science literacy curriculum that gives students the tools to succeed. The program has been so successful that it is now being replicated by 5 medical schools around the country, and has continued as a CSL program at the Tufts University School of Medicine.
Kids In Chemotherapy and their Students (KICS)
Pairing Tufts medical students with children undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, KICS allows children to have an engaging mentor who can understand their medical needs.
Teen Obstetrics Patients and their Students (TOPS)
Medical students serve as mentors to pregnant teenagers. Each medical student participant attends all their partner’s pre-natal appointments and provides support throughout the process.
Health Impact Partnership
Started this year by a first year Tufts medical student in collaboration with her former Teach for America colleagues at two other local medical schools, through the Health Impact Partnership, medical students help local students with science fair projects focused on public health intervention in their community.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
A Boston area non-profit, Bridge Over Troubled Waters enables high-risk, runaway and homeless youth to achieve a healthy and productive adulthood through prevention, intervention and education services. In partnership with this organization, Tufts medical students provide health care and support to these high-risk populations.
Originally published January 2012