Medical students aim to treat the most basic ailment: loneliness.
Being in a hospital can be difficult, painful, and oftentimes overwhelming for patients. But those without any family members or friends to visit them may face the extra burden of loneliness when they’re already at their lowest point.
To combat this isolation, the Brown Students at the Bedside Program pairs patients in the hospital who have no visitors with medical students. They spend 30 minutes to an hour sitting with a patient and talking, watching TV, or simply just keeping them company.
The program came to be when Katie DeCarli RES’19, MD, MBE, and a group of Warren Alpert medical students met more than two years ago and discovered their mutual interest in filling this unmet need.
“Sometimes the patient has no one in their lives, or they have family that are far away and can’t come be with them,” says DeCarli, a teaching fellow in medicine and an internist in Providence. “It’s a vulnerable time for patients when they’re ill enough to be in the hospital. We saw a need to provide those patients with some companionship.”
In a hospital, it can be difficult to focus on patient needs outside of the physical. Physicians are trained to treat and diagnose medical issues, but emotional well-being plays an important role, too. “We see patients as people,” says Cynthia Peng MD’20, who plays music for patients as part of another program, Healing Through Harmony. “At the fundamental basis, that’s what we do.”
Brown Students at the Bedside is in place at Rhode Island Hospital, The Miriam Hospital, and HopeHealth Hospice. When a patient is admitted and a member of the medical team notices they have no one with them, they ask if the patient would like a student visitor. If they say yes, the team recruits a medical student.
While some patients wish to talk, others prefer to simply sit with someone. “I visited an agitated elderly woman with dementia who was hard of hearing,” Dan Kraft MD’22 says. “Instead of talking, we just sat together and watched TV. Whenever she didn’t understand what was happening, I would help her out. It was my presence that was important there, not the conversation.”
Kraft says her care team told him that after he left, her agitation had significantly decreased. “Sometimes agitation is a sign of suffering,” he adds. “If we can ease that pain, that’s useful for both the patient and the entire medical team.”
The program benefits not only patients but medical students as well. “At the early stages in medical school, to sit down and to really interact and get to know who a patient is, what they value, if they’re suffering and lonely, is important,” says Fred Schiffman, MD P’96MD’00, the Sigal Family Professor of Humanistic Medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School. “To just be able to reach down to patients’ human core is something very special for students and patients alike.”
As the program grows, the leadership team, which includes medical students, residents, and faculty advisers, hopes to ensure all hospital patients have someone to visit them.
“The act of talking to someone is a beautiful and simple thing,” Peng says. “Having that humanistic touch and reminding people of this fundamental truth—that we treat the patient first—is so important for trainees.”