On June 13, Literacy Network received a UW-Madison University/Community Partnership Award for its ground-breaking work in the “English for Health” program. Literacy Network has partnered with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health since July 2011. English for Health classes teach learners how to access the healthcare system, communicate effectively with healthcare providers, use medication appropriately, and adopt healthy lifestyles. The Department of Family Medicine and Wisconsin Area Health Education Centers assign medical students to English for Health classes for eight-week placements, where the medical students serve as volunteer teaching assistants. Medical students offer class participants authentic speaking practice through role playing in mock health situations; work one-on- one with students; and assist the instructor with class activities.
This structured setting and the organization’s mission made this site an ideal placement opportunity for service learning projects conducted by third-year medical students. The Literacy Network staff members were welcoming and supportive of the ongoing relationship. Medical students offer English language learners a greater sense of confidence when communicating with healthcare professionals. The benefits are reciprocal: medical students report having gained many valuable insights through their work with the participants in these classes.
Many English language learners are anxious or embarrassed to speak with healthcare providers. Interacting with a medical student during class is an invaluable way of breaking down some of the barriers our learners feel. They are able to see providers on a more personal level, as individuals who want to help, listen and learn from them. These increased feelings of comfort and confidence develop more honest and effective communication between learners and providers. Medical students report stronger skills and confidence in establishing meaningful connections with low-literacy patients as a result of their interactions.
Additionally, medical students share their expertise with the English for Health class members. From answering questions to giving presentations on hypertension and diabetes prevention, medical students teach English language learners how to make healthier decisions in order to prevent chronic illnesses. We brought in resources from the university, including the infamous bucket of human organs (which are used as demonstration models to enhance class conversation). Showing up at class with a real liver (as one of the medical students did) is a memorable and interesting way to share the university’s knowledge.
When medical students conclude their eight-week placements, they give a public presentation about their project. Many relate positive lessons about what they have learned from English for Health participants. This helps ensure that the program is a consistently popular choice for medical students for service learning.
Literacy Network welcomes the volunteer UW medical students as equals in the course instruction, collaborating on subject matter to expand the course and responding to the needs of each class. Medical students’ input has been integrated into the classes with excellent results. Medical students have gained important perspectives about how their approach and professionalism are viewed by community members. Truly this partnership has been mutually rewarding and a wonderful example of a dynamic in which all parties can learn, and all parties can teach.
I am thrilled about the productive and friendly status of this ongoing partnership and look forward to maintaining this connection and placing our medical students as volunteer teaching assistants in the English for Health classes, and other Literacy Network programs, for many years to come.