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Medical students shed their white coats for a lesson in empathy

Students at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell on Thursday stepped into the shoes of patients struggling with financial and social challenges as part of a monthlong simulation to learn empathy skills. (Credit: Jeff Bachner)

It was a crash course in empathy for a group of fledgling doctors and pharmacists.

More than 100 students and staffers at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell shed their white lab coats and stepped into the shoes of patients struggling with financial and social challenges as part of a “poverty simulation” exercise on Thursday.

“This is not a game, this is based on real-life scenarios,” Judge Fern Fisher, retired deputy chief administrative judge for New York City Courts, who facilitated the program, told participants. “Don’t let the props fool you.”

Fisher, special assistant for social justice initiatives to the dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, helped bring the Community Action Poverty Simulation to the law school. She said she believed it was just as necessary for students who want to enter the medical field.

Students gathered in a conference room on the Hofstra campus and were grouped into “families” that ranged from couples with children to single parents and senior citizens. They donned identification cards with names of the fictitious family members and received a packet of information with biographies, job information and family assets, including money and transportation passes.

The room was lined with staffers manning tables that represented sites the families might interact with, including the courthouse, social service agency, food store, interfaith church, police department and pawnshop.

Some of the families spoke Arabic, Greek, Mandarin and Spanish.

“The idea is that you will go and have to access services and have to find and wait for an interpreter because this is what happens in your life,” said Dr. Lyndonna Marrast, one of the lead facilitators and assistant professor of medicine at Zucker.

Medical students Roshawn Johnson, 28, of Port Jefferson; Emma Gugerty, 24, of Bayville; Adam Lalley, 37, of Rego Park and Jessica Edwards, 24, of Astoria, felt confident when they learned their “family” had a working parent, a house and a car. But there weren’t enough transportation passes for the teenage daughter to get to school and the father to work. Things got more complicated when the father was taken in by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials while at work and their car was stolen.

“I came in expecting it to be challenging and chaotic and frustrating — and it’s definitely living up to those expectations,” said Gugerty, a first-year medical student. “This is really going to help us understand our patients better and just be more attuned to the problems they are facing.”

The simulation kit is licensed by the Missouri Community Action Network and has been used by educational and nonprofit groups around the country.

“This is just part of the effort to make sure the doctors that are produced from Hofstra are aware of the pressures of people who live in poverty and how that impacts their ability to keep up with their health care and to obtain medicines they need,” Fisher told Newsday. “For example, a doctor may not understand why somebody can’t eat healthy or doesn’t take their medication regularly.”

Most of the medical school training is focused on biology and pathophysiology, said Dr. Johanna Martinez, associate professor of medicine at Zucker and colead facilitator with Marrast, even though social determinants have the biggest impact on health.

“It's about time that health care starts to realize that these are the things that our future doctors, providers need to know about in order to provide great care,” she said.

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