After my heart attack, while I was deep in the throes of a truly crippling depression, my doctor referred me to a cognitive behavioural therapist for help. She was an extremely perky person, and used to say things to me like: “I have a great idea! Why don’t you sign up for a really interesting night school course at the college?” I remember looking back at her and thinking: “You have absolutely no clue.” If only I’d had the energy, I would have thrown a heavy object right at her head…
I could scarcely motivate myself to even brush my teeth every morning, so how on earth would I manage the registration process for this ‘really interesting course’, never mind actually getting myself out the door to attend night school? That’s the kind of suggestion you might make to a perfectly healthy person, and it told me instantly that this therapist had no real comprehension of how debilitating post-heart attack depression can actually be.
That’s why I was so pleased to learn about a Canadian university’s innovative new mentorship program that - besides teaching health care students using traditional textbooks, labs and lectures – will link health mentors (adult volunteers actually experiencing chronic illness like heart disease) with teams of students from several health care faculties starting this fall. First year students with the Dalhousie University Health Mentors Program (all from the Faculty of Health Professions, Dalhousie Medical School and the Faculty of Dentistry) will meet four times a year with their assigned health mentors to ask questions like:
- What is it like to live with heart disease?
- What are the emotional ups and downs?
- How do you eat well and exercise when you don’t feel well?
- How do you manage pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and other cardiac symptoms?
- How has your life changed?
Faculty behind the Dalhousie Health Mentors Program in Halifax, Nova Scotia consider patients to be the experts about their own health, and among the best sources of information about their chronic condition as they navigate the health care system. The role of the students is not to provide advice, but to gain an understanding of the daily challenges of living with a chronic condition or disability. Dr. Diane MacKenzie at Dal’s School of Occupational Therapy reports:
“The health-care field can be very segmented, but this program will help to get students to collaborate as part of a team and draw on each other’s strengths. And hopefully this will change the health care of the future for the better.”
Dalhousie’s program is modeled after the Health Mentors Program now in its third year at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. The Jefferson program is now a required element of the curriculum for students in medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, pharmacy and couple and family therapy.
Dr. Laurie Collins, faculty director for that Health Mentors Program, says the program has drastically changed the culture of education since she herself had attended Jefferson Medical College. She says:
“When I went to medical school, I never met a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist or even a nurse until I was a resident! We were trained in silos, and were not really that good at communicating with each other. And now, our students don’t even realize how strange that is; they understand the importance of working in teams. Ultimately, I think this program will really improve patient outcomes.”
Read the full Dalhousie University report about its Health Mentors Program.
Many thanks to Christine Stewart at CareToKnow.org in Toronto for this news tip from Dal.