Older patients educate medical students as only years of life can

April 5, 2012

She’s 94 years old, climbs 12 flights of stairs daily – sometimes twice – and has a wall of plaques she has earned for her volunteer service. Plus, Thelma Swindell is teaching first- and second-year medical students at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine how to work with geriatric patients as part of an innovative program called SAGE (Seniors Assisting in Geriatric Education).  Through SAGE, students regularly meet with their elderly mentor/patients, monitor their health, and, perhaps most importantly, learn to understand what is critical to their lives. In the process, the elderly patients improve the students’ education and understanding of their own health concerns. 

The SAGE program, funded by a $2-million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and led by Janice Knebl, D.O. and chief of the UNT Health Science Center’s Division of Geriatrics, links medical students with UNT Health geriatrics patients and older adults in the Meals on Wheels program. Students meet with the older patients periodically, then address home safety, medical history, the physiology of aging and medications. These soon-to-be doctors help patients understand the benefits of a life review and a physical examination. In addition to benefiting the patients, the program helps future doctors be sensitive to senior needs and relate to these patients as whole persons, not just medical charts.

"The SAGE mentors assist us in educating future physicians about aging and geriatrics. They impart the wisdom that they have garnered by living long lives," Knebl said. "They are very willing to allow the students to "practice" their clinical skills on them."

"The Sage Program gives the students a year when they can do ‘practicing patienting’ by performing all the steps required for treating a new patient," Swindell said. "And a living, breathing individual will give them a better understanding and be more interesting than obtaining the same information from the printed word."

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