Bringing access to the community

By Josh Elliott
February 27, 2014

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MEDQuestSpecial to Western News

Until Grade 10, Sarah Felder’s only medical experience came in 10-minute appointments with her family doctor and one-hour appointments on her couch with the television series ER. Needless to say, a health-care career was the last thing on her mind.

“Medicine seemed very unattainable and inaccessible,” said the 24-year-old Petrolia native.

Everything changed, however, in summer 2005 when Felder signed up for MedQUEST — now called Medical Learning in Community Settings (MedLINCS).

Organized by Western’s  Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, MedLINCS offers early-year medical students their first hands-on experience in rural communities across southwestern Ontario. MedLINCS operates in Grey-Bruce, Lambton, Essex, Chatham-Kent, Huron-Perth and Oxford-Elgin counties. Running June through early July, the six-week elective gives first- and second-year students a chance to sample a wide range of medical professions.

In the fifth week, medical students become teachers themselves as they run a doctor camp for high school students in Grades 10 and 11. The high schoolers get a crash course in basic medical skills and have the opportunity to shadow doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals on the job.

Organizers estimate more than 1,200 high school students have been through the program, which accepts students to coincide with the Grade 10 Civics and Careers course.

With MedLINCS, Felder found a passion for medicine, and she’s now in her fourth – and final – year of medical school because of it.

During the 2005 pilot program in Sarnia, three medical students spent a week teaching then 15-year-old Felder and 29 others to stitch-up cuts, wrap casts and read X-rays — all skills the medical students learned themselves just weeks earlier. Felder followed a family doctor and an optometrist to see how they worked, and got advice on how to become a doctor from students still learning themselves.

Six years later, Felder returned to teach young people as a medical student in 2011.

“I think it’s really powerful to have someone who’s at a sort of intermediate step along the road,” she said. “They were just these wonderful real people. People with flaws and goals who had accomplished something, and were going to accomplish more, and I remember thinking that was very inspirational.”

Felder took notes when the medical students gave advice on getting into medical school. She referred to those notes when she attended Western, and she went back to them again in her first year of medical school at Queen’s University. When she returned to MedQUEST as a medical student, it was her turn to share that knowledge with a new crop of high schoolers.

“What I really wanted to do was inspire the kind of confidence the program had given me,” she said. “Medicine or any health-care profession is accessible to anyone with the right determination and the right information.”

MedLINCS co-ordinator Kathy Van Dinther said the program helps fight doctor shortages in rural areas. Instead of bringing rural students into cities like London to learn about medicine, MedLINCS opens students up to health-care careers close to home.

The change from MedQUEST to MedLINCS, announced in November 2013, was made to emphasize the program’s strong links to community-based education.

Dr. Tom Lacroix, former assistant dean at Schulich, founded MedQUEST in 2005 with the Sarnia pilot program. The next year, it grew to include six communities in southwestern Ontario with opportunities for three medical students and 24 high schoolers per community. The program is open to Western medical students, but also accepts high school alumni at other institutions.

Every year, MedLINCS helps stage mock disasters in communities where it operates. The mock disasters – ranging from plane crashes to chemical spills to Zamboni explosions – involve as many as 60 people from the community and help municipalities prepare their first responders for real crises. High schoolers play disaster victims; medical students, together with local police, firefighters and paramedics, team up to rescue, diagnose and treat the victims.

“It creates this environment that in the end is very representative of some of the situations you find yourself in later in your career,” Felder said.

Dr. Dax Biondi still draws on his mock disaster experience working as an emergency room doctor. Biondi, 32, spent his MedQUEST elective in his hometown Chatham, and returned there in the summer of 2013 to practice.

“I think the reality is, the places you have exposure to are the places you’re more likely to go,” he said.

For Biondi, returning to Chatham also meant reconnecting with Dr. Kanna Narayanan, an anesthesiologist who mentored him during his six weeks in MedQUEST.

“He’s a superstar guy, really loves teaching,” Biondi said. “He’s still a mentor for me.”

Biondi, like Felder, said teaching high school students was one of the best parts of the program.

“The turnaround time is quick in learning,” he said. “We know that the best way to learn something and to reinforce something is to teach someone.”

Felder added the program motivated her to become both a doctor and a teacher.

“When you have people encourage you and spend their valuable time with you, I think it inspires you to pay it forward,” she said.


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