University of Texas Medical Branch students on Wednesday participated in a simulation of situations faced by people living in poverty — in part to recognize misconceptions surrounding poverty and in part to understand the difficulty of obtaining services people living in poverty often face.
Leslie Stalnaker, program manager for the medical branch’s public health program, coordinated the simulation that involved students assuming the biographical identity of someone with strained or scarce resources and spending two hours attempting to walk in their shoes. Each 15-minute period represented a week in that person’s life.
“We opened it up to any student on campus willing to participate,” Stalnaker said. “We thought it was an important lesson for future health care professionals to learn.
“There’s a misconception among uninformed people that people living in poverty are lazy and don’t work hard, and that’s just completely false.”
Students also were able to observe barriers to securing health care their stressed patients often face.
As students went out looking for services, they might have confronted a real-life situation like long lines to wait in or the possibility of having to deal with an overworked person having a bad day who might not be particularly friendly or helpful.
The simulation was developed by the Missouri Community Action Network and Stalnaker and others trained to be facilitators on the medical branch’s behalf.
About 65 students signed up for the exercise.
The department of public health is seeing a rising interest in the public health track the medical school offers as students become more aware of disparities in health care availability and are talking about it more openly, Stalnaker said.
Cara Anderson, a first-year medical student, said she learned a key lesson she hadn’t yet realized during her brief exposure to people living in poverty and seeking care at St. Vincent’s House Clinic, a volunteer student-run facility in Galveston.
“It makes me think twice about having a patient scheduled for 4 o’clock who didn’t show up,” Anderson said. “Maybe they were too busy trying to pay rent or couldn’t get transportation. I think people’s health care needs are often neglected because they just can’t afford to pay for it. It gave me perspective on why people might do what they do; they’re not always just noncompliant patients.”
Being aware of those problems made Anderson more conscious of how a health care professional might also be able to connect patients with other kinds of services, she said.
Simulating the life of a working mother in a family of five whose husband was unemployed was an eye-opener for Anderson, she said.
“We were surviving on one income and we had a pregnant daughter,” Anderson said. “We had to make her drop out of school and get a job to help us pay our bills.”
At the end of her long day at work, Anderson had to rush from office to office, paying the rent and utilities with cash because the family had no credit and no ability to pay until they had cash in hand.
First-year medical student Alexandria Lehrmann simulated the life of a similarly challenged single mother whose husband, a college graduate, had lost his job, unsettling the family’s finances and quickly draining their savings.
One of Lehrmann’s realizations was that having a father at home during that critical period was, in some ways, a blessing. He could do all the running around, trying to pull together services the family needed to get by, she said.
“I think the real takeaway for me is that you don’t really know how somebody else’s life is going,” Lehrmann said.
Even though, in her simulated family situation, her husband had gone to college, he couldn’t get a job. And even though the family lived in what looked like a middle-class house and owned a car, they still couldn’t make ends meet.
“Almost no one made their medical care appointments, but they were so busy with basics like housing and getting fed,” Lehrmann said.
“People try to do the best they can and that sometimes means putting medical care on a back burner.”