Janice Knebl, DO, believes osteopathic physicians are the perfect clinicians to treat America’s aging population. She wants to make sure students at the University of North Texas Health Science Center Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNTHSC /TCOM) in Fort Worth are up to the challenge.
The Seniors Assisting in Geriatric Education (SAGE) program, which the medical school started in 2009, matches groups of students from different health care education programs, such as nursing and medicine, with senior citizens they will work with for a two-year period. The student groups take a patient-centered medical home approach to caring for the seniors, visiting them in their homes several times a year for mock medical checkups.
Dr. Knebl, SAGE’s longtime program director, and her fellow instructors urge students to go beyond a basic examination and focus on creating relationships with the seniors by asking probing questions about their lifestyle and learning how they are really feeling—both physically and emotionally.
“A strong physician-patient relationship is even more important when treating an elderly patient for many reasons—some feel distrustful of physicians from negative past experiences, or they could just be scared about receiving bad news,” Dr. Knebl says. “It is the job of the physician to create a safe, trusting environment for the patient.”
Following each visit, students submit a report to a faculty member for review and feedback. Students are guided to ask the senior to speak with a health care professional about any concerns that arise during the visit.
The program, which is in place at other medical schools around the country, including the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey, helps develop health care professionals who are well-equipped to treat the rapidly growing senior population. Decades away from their senior years, young physicians who don’t interact with elderly patients may struggle to truly understand the challenges these patients face.
“When I think about students’ experiences in the SAGE program, I want them to learn what it is like for an elderly patient—not just what diseases and conditions they suffer from—but what it is like be in their shoes. I want them to show empathy for this population,” says Dr. Knebl.
More than 1,000 students from multiple health care education programs participated in UNTHSC/TCOM’s SAGE program in the 2014-2015 academic year.