Beyond the Books

One year in, Dell Med students are in the community, helping people who need it — and it’s making them better doctors.

Darryl Brandenburg has experienced homelessness since his wife died in 2009. For him, the C.D. Doyle Clinic is a haven of healthy normalcy.

“Some people, this is the only place they can go to get treatment,” says Brandenburg, 62, who receives treatment at the clinic and has become a member of its board of directors as well. At C.D. Doyle, people “don’t need any ID or payment — all you have to do is show up.”

Leonard Edwards is a member of the inaugural class at Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin, and he has the Tetris-screen calendar to prove it. But he still makes time to work at the C.D. Doyle clinic. For him, it’s a place of healing for people who desperately need it.

“The safety net has so many holes,” says Edwards, who serves as a medical student director at C.D. Doyle. “There aren’t enough services to keep these people healthy.”

C.D. Doyle is an eight-year-old free health clinic run by students that offers a medical home for people who live on Austin’s streets. It connects those who need help with others who are training — and craving — to provide it. In this, it’s one of several places where Dell Med students are promoting health and providing care in Austin and Travis County, especially among the community’s most vulnerable populations:

  • One group of students is working in a program that encourages creative artistic expression at an alternative high school in Austin.
  • Another group, all Teach for America vets, won an $8,000 grant to teach science and pre-health professions at Travis High School.
  • Students interested in psychiatry are frequent volunteers at Austin Clubhouse, which provides a community center and resources to people with severe and persistent mental illness.

There are more. All told, since Dell Med’s first 50 students started classes in July 2016, they have volunteered 3,500-plus hours across the community, including more than 1,300 hours in health care settings, according to the school’s student affairs office. Those annual numbers will likely double this year with the arrival of the next class, and then double again by 2020, when the third and fourth classes will be admitted and the inaugural students will be readying to graduate.

Wherever we possibly can, Dell Med stresses community and collaboration. We’re not really pursuing students who are inclined to spend four years with their nose in a book.
Stephen Smith

“Wherever we possibly can, Dell Med stresses community and collaboration,” says Stephen Smith, Dell Med’s associate dean for student affairs. “We’re not really pursuing students who are inclined to spend four years with their nose in a book.”

Medical students often seek volunteer work that allows them to bring healing to people who need it, and a number of studies have demonstrated that such work makes students better doctors.

A patient at an Austin clinic talks to a care provider
Darryl Brandenburg (left) talks to a care provider at the C.D. Doyle Clinic.

Empowering Students

A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Medical Education by researchers at Texas State University found that work in the community empowered students “by providing them with an environment of authentic experiences that encourages critical thinking, problem-solving and the application of knowledge.” Such work improved self-confidence, leadership abilities and problem-solving, interpersonal and communication skills, the study found.

“Students appeared to develop a better understanding of their roles as physicians and of professional work environments, while also developing a better understanding of public health and the impact of health legislation and policies,” the study says. “Students reported increased social responsibility and civism to support the underserved community. They demonstrated an increased sense of social justice and found many of the health-related problems embedded in a perpetual cycle that was difficult to break.

“Students often found themselves eagerly engaging in more hours of service than were required,” it adds.

A Transformational Goal

Dell Med’s institutional focus on community health and physician leadership funnels even more students into settings where they can help people. In the application process, the school targets students who have showed leadership in places like clinics or non-profit groups.

The school’s curriculum, developed before the first class started last year, gives students hands-on clinical training in the second year of their studies. It also reserves much of the third year for a nine-month Innovation, Leadership and Discovery block, in which they are encouraged to complete a health transformation project that “will contribute to the school’s pursuit of making Austin a model healthy city.”

This transformational goal is a driving force behind the C.D. Doyle clinic, which operates on a budget of less than $4,000 a year but still treats dozens of people almost every Sunday afternoon.

Real-World Application

Nearly every week, the clinic materializes inside the gym at the Trinity Center, next to St. David’s Episcopal Church in downtown Austin. Sitting on folding chairs at folding tables on roll-out mats spread over the hardwood floor, students work with people who come in off the street, no matter their circumstances.

The students working at C.D. Doyle come from a range of health-related programs across UT Austin and other Central Texas universities. They triage patients, help complete paperwork, make appointments, take vital signs, conduct physical exams, provide mental health screenings and present patients to an on-site physician — also a volunteer — who can provide medical opinions and write prescriptions.

Rachel Fresques, another Dell Med student who volunteers at C.D. Doyle, said the experience complements her studies and fulfills a passion that led her to medical school in the first place.

“We have very little contact with people who need help. A lot of us are very eager to interact with people who need help,” Fresques says. “The school has made it very easy to find resources.”

Kristin Tommey contributed information to this report.