CHS course forges interdisciplinary relationships to serve communities in need

Service is ingrained into the very fiber of the health care professions, and no one knows this better than Karen O. Skaff, RDH, PhD. Since 2015, a diverse group of human health sciences students led by Skaff board a bus headed for New Orleans, LA, and Appalachian counties of Kentucky, ready to give more of themselves to assist communities in need.

Skaff teaches HHS 357: Seminar in Interprofessional Healthcare, a service learning course required for all human health sciences majors to graduate. However, the course is also open to other programs within the College. “My goal as a teacher is to emphasize the value of health care service to the community,” she said. “If we as educators encourage students to step into service early, these students will be more inclined to hold on to these values as future health care professionals.”

The projects with community partners in New Orleans, LA, Somerset, KY, and Campbellsville, KY provide community engagement opportunities for students who will soon be physicians, physician assistants, physical therapists, pharmacists, dentists, clinical managers, and other health care professionals of the future. Students work in teams to conduct oral health screenings, BMI screenings, nutrition education and obesity prevention, along with physical activities designed for small children and their parents, teachers and administrators in both locations.

“We take students to an area where the need is the greatest,” Skaff said. “This exposes them to the fact that there are so many in Kentucky and beyond who don’t have the resources afforded to us. Communities like New Orleans East have been affected by major national tragedy (Hurricane Katrina) and are still in recovery.”

The trip to New Orleans begins with an overnight bus ride, with students jumping into work as soon as they arrive the next morning. Yessenia Alvarez, a junior clinical leadership and management major, who has attended both the New Orleans and Somerset trips, said this forged a close sense of camaraderie among the different disciplines.

“Every student made a friend on the trip,” Alvarez said. “For many, this is the first time some students had meaningful conversations about health care with others in their class. Human health sciences students are unique because they are multidisciplinary. Their schedules are all different because of the multitude of tracks and requirements. In this class, we are all able to come together.”

“This is truly an interprofessional service with multidisciplinary students,” Skaff continued. “We want our students to work together as one team, because that is what the health care landscape demands. It’s so important for people from different disciplines to learn about one another and collaborate to meet the needs of the patient and the community.”

In addition to cultivating a service-minded attitude, students also gain valuable experience with patients across the lifespan. “Our students are learning about early childhood development on the job and observing how to treat patients in post-acute care settings,” Skaff said. “This gives them a chance to sense what they contribute at various levels of health care.”

Although HHS 357 is a required course, it’s the experience of investing in a community that keeps students coming back, some as teaching assistants within projects or the community, after their first trip.

“I am beyond grateful to be given the opportunity to give back to the community,” Alvarez said. “It was so rewarding to see joy on the kids’ faces as they participated in the physical therapy station or learned how to brush their teeth thanks to Henry the Horse. I had a great time serving others and will continue to seek out community service opportunities in the future.”