December 10, 2020

Medical students recognized by American Medical Association for COVID assistance to region’s homeless

What began as a short-term project to collect and distribute hand sanitizer quickly expanded to incorporate broader aspects of response to the pandemic

Wolverine Street Medicine

University of Michigan medical students have been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for their efforts to support the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the spring, as students’ clinical rotations were paused due to the initial surge of COVID cases, leaders of the Wolverine Street Medicine program turned their attention to helping the most vulnerable members of the southeast Michigan community.

“As COVID came on, a lot of our classmates were looking around and thinking about how we, in our really privileged environment, could leverage our privilege for meaningful change,” said second-year UMMS student Daniel Yang.

What began as a short-term project to collect and distribute hand sanitizer to the homeless quickly expanded to incorporate broader aspects of COVID response, from personal protection equipment drives for area shelters to covering staffing gaps at the shelters themselves.

The approach garnered Wolverine Street Medicine a top spot in the AMA’s annual Students and Residents Impact Challenge competition. The program will be highlighted alongside all of this year’s awardees in a forthcoming AMA publication and student Wolverine Street Medicine leaders may have an opportunity to present at a conference next year.

“This initiative was entirely student driven. They did not wait for direction, but took it upon themselves to engage the community.  This in turn pushed us as faculty administrators to think about new ways for students to engage in community support safely and in keeping with school guidelines,” said Brent C. Williams, M.D., MPH, medical school faculty advisor to Wolverine Street Medicine. “It’s precisely the kind of community-oriented approach to health and healthcare that we strive to instill in our learners, and I couldn’t be more proud of their efforts or this well-deserved recognition for Wolverine Street Medicine.”

In typical times, students engaged in Wolverine Street Medicine bring basic care services (under supervision) to the homeless in and around Detroit on outdoor “street runs.” They also help see patients at a number of local, income-based clinics. The COVID clinical pause also forced a hiatus on these activities, but the students behind Wolverine Street Medicine quickly shifted gears to provide other support for homeless population.

One group of students created a distribution network to bring donated hand sanitizer and other hygiene supplies to the homeless. Others coordinated with Michigan Medicine’s PPE donation drive to set aside some masks, gloves and other badly needed equipment for use in local shelters. When those same shelters began to face staffing shortages because of the rise in COVID cases, medical students stepped in, working as volunteer staff to ensure the organizations could keep their doors open.

In all, medical students collectively spent more than 500 hours volunteering in shelters in the spring. Yang, who last year as a project coordinator for Wolverine Street Medicine covered 10 shifts, said the experience provided insights about homelessness that participating in clinic or street runs alone cannot.

“It really opened my eyes to the very specific and complex contextual issues posed by being homeless,” Yang said. “It challenges you to think about this particular community’s health issues — and how to address them — within a much broader context.”

In this and other ways, COVID served to strengthen the connections between Wolverine Street Medicine, the region’s homeless, and the organizations that support the community. Clinic work and street runs began ramping back up in the summer, but the insights gleaned through the pandemic will have a lasting impact.

“Part of what we learned to do more during COVID than in the past was to really advocate for the population directly and effectively in ways that we were not doing so much in the past,” said Claire Garpestad, a fourth-year medical student and the Wolverine Street Medicine co-director of operations. “We really learned as a student organization to be a liaison between the community partners and the University. It’s something we plan to hold onto moving forward.”