Program helps address non-medical needs in a health care setting.
In the waiting room of Lifespan’s Center for Primary Care at 245 Chapman St. in Providence’s Washington Park neighborhood, a can’t-miss sign greets visitors.
It reads, “Would you like help with…?” and then lists options: food, legal, clothing, housing, utility discounts, job training, adult education, and health care. The sign is positioned in front of an area that looks more like a bank than a health clinic: two seniors from Brown University are seated behind computers, patiently waiting for the chairs in front of them to fill.
Five years ago, the sign caught the eye of Gina, a 59-year-old mother of three and grandmother of four, while she visited the clinic for a doctor’s appointment.
“I was like, ‘Wow, what’s this?’” she says. Gina thought to herself, “As a matter of fact, I could use a little help.” She’d recently lost her job at a nursing home for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and she had started suffering from serious back pain. Unemployment wasn’t covering the bills, she says, and it felt like nothing was going right. Intrigued, Gina approached the table.
The students explained that they were volunteers with Connect for Health, a program run by Lifespan’s Community Health Institute that aims to address people’s basic resource needs to improve overall health and well-being. Part of their process is to talk with patients about needs and link them with resources to help.
Over time, Connect for Health volunteers have helped Gina locate local food pantries, sign up for food assistance, receive discounts on utilities, and apply for COVID test kits. Gina continues to be amazed by the students’ professionalism and dedication. They throw themselves into addressing her issues, she says, but they never ask her to explain her circumstances or justify her requests.
“They just really want to help me,” Gina says.
Meghan McCarthy ’19 MD’24 ScM’24 says that the three years she spent volunteering with Connect for Health had a strong influence on helping her decide not only the type of medicine she’d like to practice, but how she intends to practice it. McCarthy concentrated in biology and is now in her second year of the Primary Care-Population Medicine program at The Warren Alpert Medical School. While volunteering as an advocate, she learned how Connect for Health “broadened the definition of medical care.”
“It was inspiring to see how this social service program, set up in the primary care office, was integrated into the system of care,” McCarthy says. “I like the idea of trying to approach social issues head-on, within the medical space.”
McCarthy says that she valued getting to know not only community members in Providence but also the organizations that exist to address people’s needs. Through advocacy work, she learned how to have hard conversations with clients about their resource challenges—conversations she hopes to continue as a physician.
“The main lesson I took from my Connect from Health experience,” McCarthy says, “which is especially relevant as we learn in medical school about caring for patients, is to always be thinking about all of the other things that can affect health that aren’t traditionally brought up in the medical realm.”
As for Gina, she says she’ll never forget the students’ attention to her and her family.
“Connect for Health is a great way to help a person get through a rough time,” she says.