Jan. 10, 2022

First-year med students learn from communities’ lived experiences

UCalgary community partners share information and offer insight into different groups' experiences with health-care system
Vecova consumers and staff sitting around a table
Vecova consumers and Employment Services staff gather (pre-pandemic) to discuss career exploration and work experience opportunities. Vecova

A University of Calgary program is connecting first-year medical students with community partners across Calgary, strengthening connections with the community and providing a powerful learning experience based on the lessons of lived experience.

In its second year of operating virtually, the Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) Community Engaged Learning program successfully placed 170 students with 13 community organizations.

“As a medical school, it is our responsibility to ensure our students understand that an individual’s health, and health inequities in Indigenous, local and global communities, arise from historical, social, political and economic conditions," says Dr. Amy Gausvik, MD, education and community engaged learning director, Indigenous, Local and Global Health (ILGH) Office. The program is supported by the CSM’s ILGH Office and Undergraduate Medical Education.

“Community Engaged Learning gives students an opportunity to learn from and ask questions of a person with lived experience,” she explains.

It connects students with community partner organizations’ staff and clients to better understand their unique perspectives and personal experiences with the health-care system. The goal is to give students a deeper learning experience and greater understanding through first-hand accounts of those who face barriers, such as racism and discrimination, when trying to access care.

“Hearing the personal experiences of individuals really helped me gauge how I can become a better physician who can advocate for individuals with all abilities,” says Allap Judge, BSc ’18, first-year medical student participant.

Strengthening connections with our community

Vecova, a community organization that provides support, recreational and housing services for people with physical and intellectual disabilities, is in its first year as a community partner.

Keith Geddes, director of housing for Vecova, says the program helps them by strengthening Vecova’s relationship with an important stakeholder — future doctors. It provides an unmatched learning environment for medical students to understand what respectful interaction with patients with intellectual and physical disabilities looks like.

It’s an opportunity for our consumers, those who use our services and facilities, to self advocate for better care and treatment and for us to advocate for them. We hope the students learn something they wouldn’t necessarily learn in the classroom, something about the patient’s perspective.

During the sessions, students hear from Vecova’s staff about their responsibilities in the areas of mental health, addictions counselling and medical support. Students also listen to Vecova’s consumers share the challenges, barriers and discrimination they face when seeking medical services. The learning experiences provided by each community partner foster further respect and compassion, and challenge unconscious bias, power and privilege.

Meaningful message encourages empathy

The most meaningful message I am taking away from this was brought up by a consumer — she mentioned how unfair it was when doctors used big words. Vecova’s Charter of Rights is such a brilliant document, and I hope to use that as a framework for how I approach my practice with people of all abilities as I move forward,” reflects Becky Long, BSc ’14, first-year medical student.

The program is derived from the responsibility of a medical school to teach students at all levels to appreciate and understand the effect on health of lived experiences and encourage an empathetic perspective. It also demonstrates the significant role community partners have in the health and wellness of those in marginalized settings.

The next session begins Jan. 17 and includes 12 community partners and 160 third-year medical students. If you are an organization in Calgary that provides well-being and health-care support and services, and are interested in participating, contact the Indigenous, Local and Global Health Office.

Amy Gausvik is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine, a master teacher at the Cumming School of Medicine and the education and community engaged learning director in the Indigenous, Local and Global Health Office. She is also a rural family physician. Her work is focused on Indigenous health in the community of Eden Valley, rural maternity care in the town of High River, and on global health partnerships in Laos and Tanzania. 

The Cumming School of Medicine's Indigenous, Local & Global Health Office works to create the future of health and social equity at home and abroad. The office is committed to collaborating with communities to promote engagement, advance equity, inform curriculum and research, and co-design initiatives for impact.