Why It Matters
Students reflect on what they've learned by running a clinic for underserved people: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
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Students Put Quality Improvement and Leadership Lessons to Work at the University of Cincinnati

By Gina Deitz | Monday, October 30, 2017


The University of Cincinnati houses one of the IHI Open School’s oldest Chapters. They’ve accomplished a great deal since they started in 2008 – building out a successful interprofessional leadership team and recruiting over 150 members, developing QI skills through Open School courses, and establishing a strong partnership with a local organization to open a student-run free clinic back in 2010. Now, they’re hoping to open a second clinic, and are exploring other ways in which to expand that work in a way that engages other local health organizations, too.

The current Chapter co-presidents, Melinda (MeMe) Earnest, a second-year physical therapy student, and Anthony Martella, a second-year medical student, reflect on what has made this partnership successful, and what’s contributed to their Chapter’s steady growth in the interview below.

You’ve established a strong partnership with St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) to build a student-run, free health clinic, and are looking to open a second clinic at SVdP’s other site. When and how did this partnership begin?

MeMe and Anthony: Our Chapter was formed in 2008. After establishing our goals and setting up a sustainable leadership structure, our team approached SVdP’s Executive Director in May 2010, with the support of our Faculty Advisor, with a proposal: to establish a student-run free clinic.

At first, SVdP was a little skeptical — they weren’t sure how effective it could really be, but because of the University of Cincinnati’s reputation in our local community, they trusted our intentions and commitment. The two of us weren’t there when the partnership was first taking shape, but we know former leaders were focused on building relationships with SVdP clients in those first few months — whether it was engaging people as they stood in line for the food pantry, or striking up conversations to share information about the clinic — they wanted to them to see us as partners, and empower them to take control of their health.

Off the bat, SVdP could see that our leaders and volunteers were there because they saw the clients as human beings, not just patients, and really cared about their health and well-being. This is what lead to the initial and continued success of our partnership.

What has been the most meaningful aspect of this work for your Chapter?

MeMe: For me, it comes down to the relationships we build with our clients. We have the ability to sit down with our clients and have meaningful conversations about their health concerns and the ways in which different aspects of their life affect their health — without worrying about time. A lot of the people we see mention how glad they are to be able to ask questions and discuss managing their health in ways that feel possible. I think many Chapter members are grateful to be able to be there, listen, and use our skills to help.

Anthony: Our work with the clinic has been one of the best parts of my work with the Chapter. On top of that, though, the role that the Chapter plays as an outlet for spreading interprofessional collaboration has also been important to me. Many student organizations in the various colleges have reached out and worked with us to help spread the word. Training new volunteers for clinic has enabled us to build a long list of contacts for each college. Using those contacts to help spread word on different activities within each college and encouraging interdisciplinary work has been one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about our Chapter. And many other members say the same thing!

What advice would you share with other IHI Open School Chapters who are interested in establishing partnerships within their community? What do you think has been critical to your success?

MeMe and Anthony: See if you have a faculty member or professional associated with your school that works in the community providing health care to the underserved. It can be a small world, and chances are they know people in an organization that could benefit from what the clinic could provide.

Our success comes from maintaining good contact with the organizations we partner with and being sure that we are providing services that truly serve the needs of the community. Our Community Academic Partnership (CAP) meets once a month. It’s composed of members of SVdP, other local organizations with similar goals, and community members. To show our commitment to this, we have a specific position on our leadership team that is focused on working with CAP and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships.

You’ve said before that the interdisciplinary nature of your Chapter is really important to your members, and especially so in the work you do with SVdP. Can you elaborate on that, and share a few examples of how you’ve leveraged members’ diverse skills and backgrounds in the Chapter and at the clinic?

MeMe and Anthony:  Interprofessional Education (IPE) is a cornerstone at the University of Cincinnati for the development of future health care professionals, so faculty and administration encourage students across many health disciplines are encouraged to participate.

Currently, our Chapter has students from medicine, physical therapy, pharmacy, nursing, nutrition, social work, and dental hygiene. Every Spring, the Chapter sits down to develop our goals for the upcoming year and it is always so beneficial to hear the insights and perspective of our diverse cohort of Chapter members. It allows us to develop well-rounded goals that address all areas of health.


At the clinic, the interprofessional approach in clinic is incredibly beneficial, too — for both our volunteers and clients. Where many professions may not have face-to-face contact with other health care professionals until two to three years into their program (if not more!), we offer first-year students the opportunity to work with students in other professions. It’s great to see how a medical student might gather a client's history compared to a pharmacy or physical therapy student: what do other professions emphasize? What terminology and phrases do they use to help the patient understand? How do they document? Additionally, we are able to learn from each other, even while providing education to patients.

For example, if a client states that he doesn’t like taking his medicine because it makes him need to use the restroom a lot, a physical therapy student might be able to figure out that he is on a diuretic. But as a pharmacy student asks the name of it and explains the pharmacology, the other students in the room are able to learn as well, and see what may have been brief chapters in class come to life. Our interprofessional approach also allows us to provide better care for our clients. For each client, there are two to three students in the room, each from a different profession with the ability to offer their own area of expertise. This means that we are able to provide great overall care and educate ourselves, and our clients, along the way.

How have faculty played a role in your success?

MeMe and Anthony: We have a group of faculty that guide our Chapter, called the Health Professions Education Collaborative (HPEC). Many of them attend our meetings when they can, particularly Dr. Tiffiny Diers, our Faculty Advisor. The HPEC faculty volunteer their time at clinic on Saturdays to oversee our services. They are all involved in the community and dedicate some part of their careers to working with those who are underserved and un- or underinsured. They allow us to do what we do and inspire us — showing us that it is possible to be work with underserved patients while also pursuing our other career goals.

Are there any key lessons you’ve learned through your involvement with the IHI Open School Chapter that you think you’ll carry with you into your careers?

MeMe: Without a doubt, I will be a better clinician because of the Open School. I’ve learned from everyone I’ve met through Open School: students, faculty, clients, and people involved in our partner programs. As far as key lessons, the saying, “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is incredibly true, especially when working with those who have had frustrating experiences with health care. My involvement with IHI has taught me that we show how much we care not just by being compassionate clinicians, but also by finding innovative ways to improve how we provide our services. I have learned how I can use my passion for physical therapy to work with professionals from different backgrounds to improve people’s quality of care and quality of life.

Anthony: Being a part of the Chapter has taught me many things this year. Some I learned in the classroom, while others come with real-life experiences at the clinic. The “team” aspect has been one of the biggest things I plan on carrying with me into my career. I’ve learned how to see things from different perspectives, whether it’s another student from a different college or a client we see at clinic. Through our work together, I’ve realized that everyone has an equal part to play, and have become more patient, open-minded, and determined because of that. Clinic also provides incredible opportunity to work on the skills necessary for a good bedside manner. As a future physician, the way I interact with patients can make or break a relationship. Conversing with clients about their health at clinic has provided me with new insight on how the way I act can affect the quality of care.

The University of Cincinnati Chapter will present their work at the National Forum. Register for the conference today and meet them and other Chapter Leaders from across the world. Can’t make it to the Forum? You can always connect with Chapters through our Chapter Map.

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