Service project

SOMA members promote health literacy in nation’s capital

Service project helps students become comfortable speaking with and listening to people from different walks of life.


As a grad student in Washington, DC, Paul Robbins, OMS IV, spent much of his time walking across the urban landscape and observing the scenes. During those walks, he came to know the vendors of a local paper called Street Sense, sold throughout the city by entrepreneurs from the city’s homeless community.

As immediate past-chair of the SOMA Foundation, Robbins, who attends the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, was tasked with programming a community outreach program for Student Osteopathic Medical Association members at the group’s annual convention, held in DC in April. In his mind, the choice was clear: to connect his fellow medical students with the local homeless community in a dual effort to promote health care literacy and achieve comfort working with members of an at-risk population.

“It’s sometimes difficult and intimidating to talk with a stranger about what they’re going through,” Robbins says. “After a year of walking the same route, I got to know the Street Sense vendors. I thought of it as a way to get to know people in DC who were dealing with homelessness as individuals.”

Sponsored by the Combined Federal Campaign and the United Way, Street Sense is a weekly tabloid-style print publication featuring hard news, features, editorials and fiction about homelessness, poverty and related social issues. About half of the paper’s content is contributed by persons who are homeless. Founded in 2003, the program’s mission is to change the story of homelessness by offering opportunities to forgotten, overlooked and often shunned people of the city.

Vendor interviews

A group of 15 SOMA members volunteered to visit the Street Sense headquarters in DC and interview vendors about their health and lifestyle. The students filled out patient health surveys and referred vendors with health care needs to a physician on site when necessary.

Lisa Fitzpatrick, MD, MPH, medical director of Medicaid in Washington, DC, is the founder of a nonprofit health organization in the capital called Promoting Practical Health. She works regularly with the Street Sense program and oversaw the SOMA group’s interactions with Street Sense vendors. Dr. Fitzpatrick says her mission has long been to promote health literacy to all members of the community, particularly those most in need.

“In working with patients for so many years, I’ve realized that they don’t always understand what we’re saying to them,” Dr. Fitzpatrick says. “It’s very easy for us to speak in a certain way, and we can take for granted what people do and don’t know.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick says she hoped the SOMA Foundation’s Project at Street Sense would allow the students to begin gaining a crucial level of comfort in speaking with and listening to people from different walks of life.

“People don’t know how to demystify all the health information they’re seeing on the internet and on television. They’re being bombarded,” she says. “The information overload that we are all experiencing is very confusing, especially for patients.”

Students get out of their comfort zone

One of the volunteers, incoming SOMA Foundation associate liaison, Sneha Shah, OMS II, says her experience at the outreach program that day was important because it forced her out of her comfort zone and demanded that she think clinically.

“Where I go to school, there isn’t a large homeless population; it’s more of a college town,” says Shah, who attends Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine—Virginia Campus in Blacksburg. “Having these conversations about mental health, we were asking them if they have any suicidal ideations. If they say yes, we have to think about how to phrase the next part of the conversation.”

The SOMA Foundation’s mission is to support the education and professional development of osteopathic medical students through a not-for-profit commitment to administering scholarships and promoting philanthropy.

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