MSU students learn to be physicians while providing clinical care to Detroit's homeless

Aug 6, 2018

Detroit Street Care is an outreach activity where Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine students provide medical assistance to the homeless. Through the program, medical students at the college’s Detroit Medical Center site, offer clinical care to the city's homeless population with supervision from physicians Richard Bryce and Mary Jo Voelpel.

"Affordable, clean housing in the city of Detroit and healthcare is really a critical, critical problem. There are over 10,000 homeless, and they don't have an adequate education. They don't have an adequate infrastructure to support them, and so we face challenges every day," says Voelpel.

Second year student Allison Jennens is president of Detroit Street Care.

Credit Russ White

"We learn all these medical textbook things in the classroom and then we get to apply what we learn on people just five minutes away and really practice it and learn," says Jennens. “And the people who come see us, they don't mind taking the extra time for us to learn and talk about it with each other. And then we get to apply it on people who really need it. I went into medicine because I like to help people, and the first two years of medical school are really studying. This is a chance for me to get out and actually help people and apply it to people who live just a block down the road."

"Here in this setting, it's kind of like a learning curve, learning how to do your physical exam, what is it that the patients need," adds Voelpel. “You've had 100 hours under your belt of course work. Now take what's in your head and teach your hands, your eyes, and your ears what is in your head. And so a big part of the clinic is not only helping the people who come here, but it's also educating the students to understand, ‘Ah. So this is what I'm seeing. This is what this diagnosis is and now I know how to manage it.’

Credit Russ White

“Actually, it's a huge part of our mission statement, especially as an osteopathic program, because we have always reached out in terms of community programs. Our integrated programs reach out to people who need blood pressure checks and cholesterol checks. In the bigger scheme of things, this is just taking it another level further. We're not just going to a park and checking blood pressures and cholesterol. We're actually dealing with the chronic issues and prescribing and giving medications to people who need it. It's always been integrated into our curriculum to teach that community approach. A truly good physician is a physician who is involved in their community, and you can't teach a young student that concept unless they are there and they see it and they have a role model to follow.

"I think our role to help mankind when they are at the absolute bottom is critical, and the more people who step up to the plate and recognize there are problems and begin to help in a real way, the more quickly we're going be able to resolve some of these serious issues. This is not about people who are on drugs who don't care. The majority of the people have become homeless and displaced because of real serious financial problems that happened that were beyond their control and comprehension. And so if we take little steps towards rectifying all of these areas, you know in the next 10 years we're going look back and see huge changes. And it's so rewarding.

Credit Russ White

"A big part of the learning and the management of patients and treatment is just the fact that we sit and listen, that we look them in the eye and there's someone actually who is going to hear what their problems are, and that's really a huge part of what we do. And the students have found that if they just sit there calmly and give them a chance to talk, that they'll unfold a lot of problems that they have. And many of them are very relieved by the fact that someone actually sat and listened to them and heard what their problems are."

"You can imagine in the classroom where you're learning the skill set in this very isolated textbook kind of way,” says student Eli Benchell Eisman. "And when we come here as future physicians, we really have a chance to hone those practical skills in a very hands on pragmatic way. Not just learning how to take a history, not just learning how to do a physical exam, but how to talk to another person, how to have that really basic human interaction that is at the core of the osteopathic profession.

Credit Russ White

“And I think one additional feature of coming to the NSO is that we get to see diseases that you would normally see out in the world like hypertension and diabetes. But we get to see those things that are compounded by the challenges of being homeless or being financially vulnerable. And so you have this unique presentation of disease that you wouldn't see anywhere else. It's actually happened a few times where I've seen something in the clinic before I saw it in the classroom. So when I saw it in the classroom, well I already knew it. And so going the other way and having the top down exposure to it is just so, so rewarding."

"I was thinking about what Dr. Voelpel said about treating them on their level, talking to them as a human being and that's one of the main osteopathic tenets, to treat the body, mind and soul," says Jennens. "And so that's what we do here. And they have health issues upon financial issues upon social issues and we're here to listen and treat them as best we can."

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