Helping students & the community: Armstrong's Patient Advocates program gives students real-world work experience

Not many universities look at the healthcare industry the way Armstrong does. Then again, no other school has Janet Buelow and her team of enthusiastic, caring students.

Buelow, a professor of health services administration in Armstrong's College of Health Professions, began the Patient Advocates program last year. Since then, this innovative program has grown into a full-fledged elective course that gives students real-world work experience and teaches them hands-on patient care in a way no textbook can convey.

Funded by a nursing grant for interprofessional collaborative care at St. Mary's Clinic, the program allows students to get a first-hand look at the social determinants of health care such as income, literacy, and safe housing and to understand how those determinants affect a patient's health and wellness.

“Patient advocates listen to patients and help them with whatever barriers are blocking them from reaching their health goals,” Buelow explained.

Buelow's students help patients apply for food stamps, welfare, Medicaid, Medicare and even aid in finding appropriate medical care for everything from severe dental problems, to annual physicals. The students also provide health prevention coaching that covers early detection of cancers, diabetes management, and more.

Armstrong pre-respiratory therapy student Yesenia Forero discovered that in the Savannah community, a huge language barrier exists between many patients and their health care providers.

“I found myself being a Spanish medical interpreter,” said Forero.

Forero helped Spanish-speaking patients apply to get into the clinic, explained various procedures, accompanied patients throughout their visits, and even assisted with triage at times.

“The students assist the centers they work for, and each center has different needs,” said Buelow.

Students in the Patient Advocacy program work three hours per week at St. Mary's Clinic, St. Mary's Community Center, Community Health Mission, the Coastal Health Department, the Good Samaritan Clinic or the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer Center.

“Placing students in clinical settings with underserved populations is a critical part of the program,” explained Buelow, “not just because of the educational benefit to the students, but also because of the benefit to our own community.”

“Studies of similar patient advocate programs in larger cities have shown a decrease in unnecessary emergency room visits, as well as decreased re-hospitalization of patients,” she added. “As our program develops, we are hoping to see just as significant outcomes with the more vulnerable citizens of Savannah.”

In addition to individual clinical work, students must also work together in teams consisting of four or five students from different health-related majors.

“This is an interprofessional program, and when I accept students, I make sure they are all not the same major,” explained Buelow. “This allows students to become familiar with other health care disciplines and shows them how to work together with other professionals in order to provide the best care.”

Shinal Patel, a health administration major at Armstrong, says the interdisciplinary aspect of the program greatly improved the care she was able to provide to her patients.

“During group assignments, we would review our difficult cases and were able to gather different views to come up with a solution,” said Patel. “I was able to see how important it is to have health care professionals work together.”

More than 50 Armstrong Patient Advocates have already been integrated into the community through this program. While providing a much-needed service, students are able to build their resumes by working with other healthcare providers in the field before they even graduate. The patient advocacy program helps students get a head start in life, while at the same time allowing their patients to start living a healthy life.