The Family Centered Experience: What Patients can Teach Doctors-In-Training
Thirteen years ago, Laura Tillman was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. The diagnosis altered her life and that of her husband, Lew, because of the need for frequent treatments, tests and medical appointments. When Tillman learned the U-M Medical School was looking for patients with chronic or serious illnesses to share their experiences with medical students, she volunteered eagerly.
“The Family Centered Experience is great,” Tillman says. “It helps students be aware that there’s a person behind the symptoms.”
The program is one of a handful in the U.S. that matches medical students with patients and their families as part of their overall education. The course convenes weekly the first two years of medical school, and periodically as a “reunion” in the third year. Program director Arno Kumagai, M.D., says the FCE demonstrates the power personal stories have in helping medical students understand illness and its treat treatment from the patient perspective.
“Students meet several times with one volunteer family in the first year, then do the same thing with another the second year,” says Rachel Perlman, M.D., FCE associate director. “They look at culture, health beliefs, age, gender, support systems and communication as they learn how to care for the whole person.”
Students also learn from each other by getting together in small groups following family visits to discuss their impressions and reflections, and discover what makes each patient experience unique.
Students Jim Nguyen and Maha Jawad were paired with each other and the Tillmans.
“Last year, I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but our family made us comfortable right away, so it was a great experience. This year, the Tillmans have made us feel comfortable, too,” says Jawad.
“It helps that Maha and I were a team last year. We chat before the visit, then compare notes afterward,” says Nguyen.
Both agree that working with volunteer families has opened their minds to patient perspectives they might not have considered as practicing physicians—things like what makes positive or negative impressions of doctors, the tension of waiting for test results and the social stigma of illness.
“The students have shown gratitude that we’ve opened up to them,” says Tillman. “My diagnosis didn’t come easily and I’ve shared my experiences, thoughts and feelings—everything I’ve been going through. And we’ve gotten a lot out of working with these brilliant, dedicated young people, too.”