From its inception in 2007 through June of this year, UConn’s Urban Service Track (UST) student volunteers have contributed 8,950 hours of health care service to Connecticut’s underserved urban populations, according to the Connecticut Area Health Education Center (CT AHEC). Known as Urban Health Scholars, student participants are selected through an application process. That service is valued at nearly $250,000, based on yearly state averages of the value of volunteer time.
The number of volunteer hours put in by the program’s Urban Health Scholars has risen steadily each year, says Petra Clark-Dufner, associate director of CT AHEC and co-director of UConn’s Urban Service Track. That figure does not include the value of preceptor time for supervising the scholars, supplies, or administrative support from CT AHEC.
UST is a two-year curriculum that teaches health-profession students in a variety of professions to work with at-risk populations in urban areas. Each year approximately 50 students from the UConn schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, and social work, as well as Quinnipiac University’s physician assistant program, are accepted into the program.
These Urban Health Scholars are stationed at health centers right in the community, where they receive hands-on training from primary care providers as well as from core faculty from each participating school. They also run approximately 50 free community outreach events every year for a wide variety of constituents in under-resourced communities. In addition to hosting events ranging from health screenings and dental clinics to nutrition, teen pregnancy prevention, and smoking cessation programs, the scholars give a voice to the underserved by advocating before the legislature in Hartford and Washington, D.C.
To date, 148 students have completed the UST program. A survey of 2013 UST graduates indicated that approximately 57 percent feel their future plans include a career working in primary care and providing care to the medically underserved. UST’s value to the community extends far beyond the $250,000 in volunteer hours these students have contributed so far, says community benefits consultant Caron Lanouette.
“UST students are offering a number of services that are very difficult for those communities to provide themselves,” Lanouette attests. “Many of those communities couldn’t afford to pay for those services, leaving their most vulnerable citizens unserved.”
That can be potentially even more expensive, she points out. Preventive care and screenings allow health problems to be avoided or caught and treated early, which is much less costly than treating advanced, acute illness.
UST also benefits those communities in other ways, namely by developing health professionals who are better equipped to serve the state’s at-risk populations. Over and above the basic science and clinical curricula, Urban Health Scholars receive training in cultural and linguistic competency, health policy, advocacy, and more.
“Students develop cultural literacy as well as clinical skills,” says Dr. David Henderson, UConn School of Medicine associate dean for medical student affairs. What’s more, he adds, “the approach Urban Service Track takes dovetails well with the way adults learn. It is experiential. It involves a great deal of service learning.”
An equally important aspect of the experience, according to Henderson, is its interprofessional focus. Medical students, dental students, nurses, pharmacists, and physician’s assistants all work together on community health projects. As a result, they learn to collaborate to provide care that is more comprehensive than any one practitioner can provide alone, he explains.
“They work in an environment and in a manner that aligns with the way medical care is supposed to be practiced, rather than the way it actually is practiced,” Henderson says.
Devra Dang, associate clinical professor of pharmacy and co-director of UST sums it up this way: “UConn’s UST program is a dynamic example of a successful academic and community partnership. It is leading the way in creating a pipeline of high-quality health professionals who value interprofessional teamwork and patient-centered care for the urban underserved.”
The CT AHEC Network engages more than 6,000 learners state-wide, annually. The CT AHEC Program Office is located at the University of Connecticut Health Center within the School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health and Health Policy (CPHHP). Support for the CT AHEC Network is provided by CPHHP, the School of Medicine, the Connecticut State Legislature, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Information about CT AHEC is available at http://www.publichealth.uconn.edu/ct-ahec.html.