Innovative course option: Med students take on tough health issues

Many students dream of the day when they can close their books and trade the classroom for the streets, gaining insights only gleaned from experience.

Luckily, for Julia Iosfina, a third-year MD student, such experience and knowledge isn’t delayed until graduation.

Iosfina is one of many students participating in the Doctor, Patient and Society (DPAS) course’s innovative self-directed project option. Second-year MD students can forego the traditional DPAS class in favor of a project of their own design, where they explore public health issues by working with fellow students, community aid organizations, and government to effect change in local communities, and beyond.

Working with a multi-disciplinary team of nursing and midwifery students, Iosfina and her colleagues in the Fir Square Doula Project provide birthing support for pregnant women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, many of whom are homeless or suffer from addictions and have few support resources during their pregnancy.

“I learn more when I work hands-on and pursue my own interest,” says Iosfina. “I immerse myself more in a project that I’m interested in rather than sitting in a discussion group discussing proscribed topics. I like that my work actually impacts someone.”

The shape, scope and outcomes of the projects differ greatly, from those dealing directly with the healthcare community, such as the documentary film Strange Bedfellows which explores the relationships between pharmaceutical sales reps and family doctors, to implementing programs in local schools, such as Do Bugs Need Drugs, which teaches children the health benefits of clean hands.

No matter the outcomes, Dr. Gary Poole, Associate Course Director of the DPAS self-directed project option, thinks that all projects are ultimately a success.

“A project that sets out to change the world, but doesn’t change the world, can still be very successful because the student in question learned a great deal. So if you use the amount that students say they have learned, and the amount that you can infer they learned based on the work they submit, then these projects are tremendously successful.”

Self-directed projects increase a student’s cultural sensitivity and ability to assess the health needs of a subpopulation, while also teaching the fundamental skills and ethics of healthcare research, and how to work collaboratively to effect change–lessons that they may not otherwise get in the regular curriculum.

“One of the most important things they learn is that nothing is ever straight forward,” says Debby Altow, a DPAS Project Tutor. “It’s a bit of a cold shower to realize that the passion you have is not necessarily shared to the same degree by those who are in place to implement or move it forward.”

The self-directed option is in its seventh year, and has grown from the initial 7 students doing self-directed projects to 82.

“The thing that I am most excited about is that it is truly self directed,” says Dr. Poole. “It is what happens as an educator when you look at how to get out of the way, not in the way.”

Second-year MD student Julia Iosfina provided birthing support for women in the Downtown Eastside as part of a self-directed project.