Dr. Kim Bullock has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic since its inception, and she’s engaged countless strategies to build vaccine trust in her community. But one of the most impactful has been incorporating medical students to help vaccinate, educate, and simply reassure patients at her vaccination and testing clinic in Washington, D.C.’s Providence Urgent Care Center.
“One day, a patient came in for asthma treatment and saw folks coming in for vaccines. A medical student struck up a conversation with her,” Bullock said. With her significant history of asthma, the patient was understandably concerned about adverse effects from receiving the vaccine. Could she get sick from it? Would she potentially end up in the ICU?
“The questions snowballed,” Bullock said, “but the student was kind and patient in answering her questions. I didn’t expect her to say ‘yes’ to the vaccine. But after talking to the student and coming back, she did.”
It is one tale of many: Providence’s vaccination clinic regularly serves hundreds of patients a day, and the cohort of 20-25 students from Georgetown University and other institutions has played a crucial role in allowing Providence to boost vaccinations and vaccine confidence alike in their community.
Stepping In from the Sidelines
As the Medical Director of Providence Urgent Care Center and Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University, Dr. Bullock regularly mentors medical students, and her idea to incorporate them in vaccination efforts naturally emerged as the pandemic took shape.
“If there’s one commonality to health victory in this space, it’s people supporting one another in getting the vaccine,” she said. “All of us have to be involved in overcoming the hurdle.”
At Providence, one of the few facilities caring for underserved, predominantly BIPOC populations in northeast D.C., this was especially the case. To support the newly opened vaccination clinic, Bullock enlisted the help of student leaders to recruit their colleagues to assist.
Dr. Vian Zada, then a student at Georgetown, was one of them. Passionate about addressing health disparities, Zada eagerly volunteered for a rotation at Providence Medical Center, but not many other students were aware of the clinic. Zada sought to change that by organizing, training, and recruiting her fellow students to take part in Providence’s vaccinations—and to shift the perception that students had an uncertain role to play in COVID-19 vaccinations.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, medical students were sidelined and didn’t know how to be helpful,” said Zada, who vaccinated several hundred patients herself. “But having students take part in vaccinations is crucial—whether it’s directly vaccinating people or answering questions, we can provide another layer of attention and care.”
Part of it is simply about making a connection with patients, Zada said.
“One lady asked if I’d be there personally for her second shot because she was terrified of needles and simply needed comfort,” Zada said. “These experiences bring out a lot of emotions, and sometimes people just need a little help to get over the hump and get the vaccine.”
Caring for Patients from “Door-to-Discharge”
Providence has found success in incorporating students in their later years of medical school, Bullock notes, but whatever their level, medical students can assist in vaccination efforts from “door-to-discharge.” 20-25 third- and fourth-year students serve in the clinic in multiple roles, with advanced students serving as vaccinators while others sit with patients, help them complete paperwork, and assist with post-vaccination patient education.
These educational efforts complement the informal, patient-to-patient conversations that are also crucial for building vaccine trust. Providence structures its clinic so that patients receiving vaccines share a common waiting area with urgent care patients to encourage interactions. “While patients wait for urgent care, they’re seeing numerous people waiting in line [for vaccines],” said Bullock. “And it gets their mind turning about what it means for them.”
The results have been encouraging. Incorporating students has allowed Providence to see significantly more patients, rising from 100 to sometimes 400 a day, with even more being seen on weekends. Furthermore, the students’ presence has been well-received by patients, and these efforts in building vaccine trust have radiated out into the community.
“Sometimes physicians move quickly from patient to patient, but students can be more social. That’s been wonderful for building relationships,” Bullock said. “Not only do the students feel a deep sense of commitment in helping the health of the community, but so do patients.’”
Zada has since graduated and become an emergency medicine physician in Los Angeles, but the program continues. Other students have since taken over ongoing duties, and they now hail not just from Georgetown University but also from other local institutions. Their efforts have sparked interest from undergraduate and even some high school students.
A Shared Effort and a Collective Impact
The impact it has made on the medical students themselves has been no less crucial.
“They’re seeing what public service is all about, and it expands their sense of being a citizen physician,” Bullock said. “Serving as a vaccinator, as a supporter, as a listener—those become just as important in your role as a public health officer in the clinic or the lab.”
Zada, who remembers the faces of the people she vaccinated, agrees.
“It takes a lot of people—including the public—to make communities safer,” said Zada. “It’s wonderful to have been part of a huge public health effort to make the world a safer place and make medicine more accessible.”
Further Resources on COVID-19 Vaccinations and Equity from ACU
In addition to collecting COVID-19 resources for clinicians (and the medical students they mentor) serving underserved communities in COVID-19 vaccination or testing programs, the Associations of Clinicians for the Underserved is partnering with Pfizer in a new initiative to improve health and vaccine equity for the underserved in the wake of the pandemic.
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