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BU students connect patients with resources to fulfill basic needs

Posted by Your Town  October 15, 2012 03:37 PM

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At Boston University, students are gaining real-world experience in the health care field before they graduate. Through BU’s partnership with Health Leads, students serve as advocates for patients, connecting them with resources to fulfill their basic needs, such as food, housing and heating assistance.

Mark Marino, executive director of Health Leads Boston, said his organization approached BU to partner with Health Leads in 2008 due to its affiliation with Boston Medical Center and BU’s reputation for medical services and public health.

“It’s helped students to see health care from a much broader perspective, not just a medical model,” said Dr. Jean Peteet, clinical assistant professor at BU’s Sargent College and Health Leads faculty liaison. “They see all the other needs that affect patients’ health, but are not necessarily covered by the health care system.”

Formerly called Project HEALTH, Health Leads was founded in 1996 by Rebecca Onie (current chief executive officer), then a sophomore at Harvard College, and Dr. Barry Zuckerman at Boston Medical Center. Students go through a week of intense training and work a minimum of six hours per week during the school year and up to 20 hours per week during the summer.

Marino said this year Health Leads has focused on building an integrated technology system that allows them to access patient records, capturing information in real time and documenting the material to track their successes and barriers, so they can improve the system and student experience.

“You really see the direct impact of your efforts when you’re working on important issues that impact these peoples’ lives,” said Callie Bacon, a BU senior with a health sciences major and public health minor. Bacon is in her second semester volunteering with Health Leads.

Marino said 96 percent of students who graduated from Health Leads Boston this past spring have chosen to pursue graduate studies in health and poverty. Throughout all six Health Leads cities, this figure is 86 percent, according to Health Leads.

“The students are really empowered to be change agents for their community when they graduate, whether they go into health, social service, public service, or business,” Marino said. “They have a different lens on how health care should be.”

Carolyn Rigeur, a Codman Square Health Center patient, was directed to Health Leads by her primary care doctor a year ago. Facing eviction from her home, Rigeur was connected by Health Leads to Greater Boston Legal Services, which was able to resolve the problem.

Rigeur was so pleased with her experience that she sent thank you cards to Health Leads Boston and the student who assisted her.

“We help hardworking people who end up in really bad situations,” said Dan Mello, a BU senior with a business law major and public health minor. “I feel like I’m always breaking down stereotypes.”

Health Leads currently operates in 15 hospitals and community health centers in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Providence, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

“Health Leads advocates make sure the loops get completed, then they report back to us,” said Dr. Sean Palfrey, clinical professor of pediatrics and public health at BU School of Medicine.

Palfrey serves as Health Leads mentor to Harvard and BU Medical students and is housemaster at Adams House at Harvard, where Onie was hired as a resident tutor during her time at Harvard.

The organization continues to expand throughout Boston. This fall, Health Leads started a partnership between University of Massachusetts Boston and the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester. In addition to Codman Square Health Center and Boston Medical Center, Health Leads Boston provides services at The Dimock Center in Roxbury.

Mello, who volunteered as an advocate this summer and now works as a university coordinator at BU, said his team recruited a record number of 100 applicants for the fall 2012 semester, double their previous record, and he expects this number to continue growing.

“We look to BU as a forefront institution…we definitely have an appetite to expand the program to additional clinics,” Marino said. “We want to take on more students, but we have to have the right support and staff structure to make sure the students get that excellent quality of experience.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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