Power of a Phone Call: Medical Students Changing COVID-19 Patients’ Lives

Students have made more than 2,500 phone calls to COVID-19 patients and isolated seniors since the start of the pandemic

A doctor's stethoscope connected to a mobile phone. Students made phone calls to hundreds of COVID-19 patients, along with seniors isolated by the pandemic.

Students made phone calls to hundreds of COVID-19 patients, along with seniors isolated by the pandemic. (Adobe Stock)

It’s been a year since the pandemic’s start, and since UConn medical students started working the phones to help in the battle against COVID-19. The students have made more than 2,500 phone calls so far to check on COVID-19 positive patients in quarantine as well as high-risk older adults.

The calls are part of the COVID-19 Self-Quarantine Surveillance Capacity Expansion Program, one of several student-led COVID-19 response initiatives rapidly developed last year by the Connecticut Area Health Education Center Network (CT AHEC) based at UConn Health. The Network’s mission is to address health disparities through workforce development, working with community, state, and federal partners to identify and address need at the local and state levels.

CT AHEC works in collaboration with UConn School of Medicine, UConn Health, and the other partnering schools of UConn Dental Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work, and Quinnipiac University’s Physician Assistant Program. One example of CT AHEC’s innovative training programs is the UConn Health patient-focused surveillance project, with students checking in via phone call. It is a close collaboration with the Population Health team’s ongoing COVID-19 response. More than 1,500 calls alone have been made to UConn Health patients since April 2020.

Health profession students have also have assisted with making more than 500 calls to isolated, high-risk seniors via the Geriatric Surveillance Project with Hartford’s South End Wellness Senior Center and close to 800 calls for the Friendly Visitor Calling Project with Health360 across Waterbury and Torrington. Plus, other CT AHEC COVID-19 community projects included students distributing over a 1,000 care bags to COVID patients, and, most recently, students helping with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Also, students have been involved in community COVID testing.

“This is very important work. It is part of our legacy as we hope to put the once-in-a-lifetime, if not in a century, pandemic in our rear view mirror,” says Dr. Bruce. T. Liang, dean of UConn School of Medicine. “AHEC and our Student Affairs teams have stepped up and risen to the occasion.”

“UConn and CT AHEC have been engaging health professions students to help patients, community members, and partners during the pandemic,” says Petra Clark-Dufner, associate director, CT AHEC and Director of its Urban Service Track/AHEC Scholars Program.
“The tele-surveillance projects have been critical to add support to patients and community members in need during these unprecedented COVID times. It has been operating since April 2020 and continues today with our amazing interprofessional UConn Health/AHEC Urban Health Scholars calling these patients to check in on how they are feeling and dealing with COVID symptoms and needs. Also, they update the patient’s primary care physician and regarding any concerns.”

Involving our students in the response to this pandemic is training them to be change agents in the communities they will serve,” says Dr. Bruce E. Gould, associate dean for primary care at UConn School of Medicine and director of the CT AHEC Program. “It is also preparing them to have the courage and passion to continue to confront the issues that stand between the underserved and wellness, every minute of every day.”

Making a Difference, One Call at a Time
Fourth-year medical student Candice Quarella, 26, of South Windsor, has been with the COVID tele-surveillance project since its start last April.

She is grateful she applied to join CT AHEC’s extracurricular, interprofessional Urban Service Track (UST) early on in medical school, and for the volunteer opportunities it has given her to help underserved urban patient populations.

“Last year, when the pandemic hit, all of us third and fourth-year medical students were pulled from our clinical training rotations,” says Quarella. “I was supposed to start my internal medicine training but had to stay home until June. We all wanted to do something to help. We were trying to train to be future doctors but there was nothing we could do just yet in person.”

Thanks to CT AHEC, the COVID-19 tele-surveillance program was born.

“It was a way us medical students could really contribute to the new pandemic’s response while being initially remote and virtually learning,” says Quarella.

“Candice is one of our longest invested students in the UConn Health tele-surveillance project and now, a trainer,” says Clark-Dufner.

As part of the main tele-surveillance program, any patient who receive a positive COVID-19 test at UConn Health would be referred to the student-run program for follow-up by phone. “It was a good way to keep track of our patients, and especially those patients who may fall through the cracks. In particular, close monitoring of those who were not ill enough to be hospitalized from the virus.”

Students like Quarella would call each patient to follow up on any symptoms, or worsening of symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain, and connect them with any follow-up medical care. Also, in addition to medical care, students followed up to address any possible social issue needs, and provided patients with helpful resources or connections with social services.

“One COVID-19 patient who was homeless really stands out as a patient that I helped by phone,” recalls Quarella. “He was going to the ED multiple times, had a great deal of medical and social concerns, and was a very challenging case. Thanks to our tele-surveillance program we were able to connect him with services that could really, really help him.”

Quarella adds: “It was nice to be connected to patients to prevent them from falling through the cracks. I hope the patients we called felt more connected to care and our whole team at UConn Health trying our best to meet their needs, especially during an unpredictable time of such isolation. I hope they felt a strong connection to UConn and our commitment to them.”

Following her medical education and pandemic experience, Quarella has some words of advice: “My message to all is to hang in there, and get your vaccine once available. It’s been a hard year, and we’re all really in this together.

“I think the pandemic has been such a unique experience,” Quarella, who will be staying at UConn for her OB/GYN residency, which begins in July, says. “Being intimately involved in these COVID-19 patients’ lives, and helping them, will definitely stay with me and help inform my patient care in the future.”

Understanding That Health Goes Beyond the Physical

Another graduating fourth-year UConn medical student, Tiffani-Amber Miller ’15 (CLAS), 27, of Kissimmee, Florida is also headed to OB/GYN residency this summer, but in her home state at the University of Florida. After earning her undergraduate degree in biological sciences with a sociology minor, Miller decided to stay at UConn for medical school.

“Last year, once the pandemic hit, I still wanted to contribute,” says Miller. “The Urban Service Track offered the opportunity, and I jumped on it as a great way to be involved in the Connecticut community.”

Miller joined the geriatric-focused tele-surveillance project, conducting phone screenings for isolated seniors stuck in their homes due to the pandemic’s risks.

“We called to check on the seniors, as they were very isolated, and often alone, and not allowed to have any visitors,” says Miller. “Thanks to our program. we were a point of contact for them, so they just simply had someone to talk to. The phone was a great, safe way to connect and to provide these older adults comfort. It was very rewarding.”

The telehealth experience taught Miller just how often the geriatric population can be overlooked, and the importance of checking on seniors frequently.

“When it comes to the pandemic, it’s just not all about physical health, but also mental well-being from not seeing people for a long period of time,” says Miller.

Miller says the pandemic and her experience assisting seniors by phone has taught her to value her family and loved ones even more than before.

“This pandemic has taught me to really appreciate the people around me,” she says.

Like the UConn medical students, interprofessional CT AHEC Urban Health Scholar, Kelli Nelson, 30, of Stratford, is very grateful for her pandemic response opportunity to also help seniors in need. She is training to be a physician assistant at Quinnipiac University.

“With the sudden onset of isolation and change to everyone’s normal routine, I felt that I needed to give back and help our community. This project was a way to reach out to the geriatric community and those affected by COVID-19 to reiterate they were not alone and we were there as a listening ear and support,” says Nelson. “I connected with one senior in particular who was very grateful for the weekly call, as she lived alone. This phone call was something we both looked forward to each week.”

Nelson says the most gratifying part of the experience was knowing she was bringing some light to people during a difficult time.

“My hope is that those affected by COVID-19 or social isolation feel as though they have been remembered,” says Nelson. “​This experience will help me remember the collaborative effort that is needed to help provide the best patient care and resources for my patients.”

CT AHEC couldn’t agree more.

“As graduating students, Candice, Tiffani, and Kelli will bring with them their unique experiences with CT AHEC/the Urban Service Track into practice.  These experiences have shaped their readiness and ability to address the needs of Connecticut residents during COVID-19 and beyond,” says Clark-Dufner.