Is this a “revolution” in med school education?

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

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. See also: Healthy Privilege: When You Just Can’t Imagine Being Sick

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 in Toronto for this news tip from Dal.

See also:


5 thoughts on “Is this a “revolution” in med school education?

  1. I’m sitting here this morning about to cancel out on lunch with my best friend because I can’t seem to dig out of this pit I’m in. I’m on meds for depression and just waiting for them to “kick in”…. I’m alive and that should be reason enough to be happy and I am grateful but this black cloud doesn’t seem to want to move…..this too shall pass???


    1. AZjude —

      Meds should kick in within three weeks, often sooner; if it has been that long, they are not working. Medication does better with talk therapy; from your description of lethargy and black clouds, it does seem like you are wrestling with depression — as anyone with a heart attack must.

      I hope you can find someone with experience with chronic illness to talk with. (I wouldn’t recommend Carolyn’s perky cognitive behavioral therapist though).

      Frankly, it took me a long time to emerge from depression and a long, long time for the energy to come back after a heart attack. Crawling into a cave after being wounded goes with the territory of a heart attack; being perky doesn’t.

      For me, walking, a very little bit at a time and a little more each day, is one of the things that saved me, as did resting and taking it easy whenever the hell I felt like it.


  2. Following my cardiac arrest, it wasn’t just out of dismay at how my young body had failed (It succeeded too as I did survive) that I was a wee bit depressed but for years and to this day there is the potential to have depressive thoughts because of the larger implications of my heart condition for my life.

    This sounds like a great program, I hope that they will talk to men and women of all ages and at varying points not just immediately after.


  3. Pingback: Faculty Intro

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