March 12, 2014
Programs that pair medical students with people with Alzheimer’s are gaining popularity at medical schools across the country. By allowing students to spend time with and get to know people with dementia, the programs increase awareness of what it’s like to live with the disease, both for patients and their families.
These so-called Buddy Programs began as a way to empower patients by helping them teach doctors-in-training about what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s. For young doctors, the programs lead to improved understanding of Alzheimer’s and better care of patients down the road.
Northwestern University, one of the first schools to develop a program, has been pairing first-year medical students with early-stage Alzheimer’s patients for the past 16 years. The students are given an orientation that includes basics of Alzheimer’s care and instruction on how to effectively communicate with patients. They are then matched with a patient who lives nearby.
The students have meals with patients, go to a movie, take walks and engage in other activities. Students also meet regularly in groups and for instructional seminars. Some 10 to 15 students elect to participate each year.
Follow-up studies have shown that medical students who participate in the program typically overcome preconceived ideas that they had about Alzheimer’s. Rather than seeing what a patient can’t do, they focus more on the remaining abilities and strengths of someone with dementia.
Similar programs are in place at other medical schools, including Boston University, Harvard, Dartmouth College, and Washington University in St. Louis. Additional schools are planning similar programs, including the University of Wisconsin and the University of Kansas.
The programs give students a first-hand look at what’s involved in the care and support of people with Alzheimer’s and their families. Experts say that such programs are important because they raise awareness of the disease. In addition, some doctors who have been through the program are inspired to specialize in understaffed fields like geriatrics and Alzheimer’s care.
The American Geriatrics Society notes that about 7,500 geriatricians and 1,600 geriatric psychiatrists currently care for an estimated 12 million elderly Americans, and that about twice that number of doctors is needed. Demand will only increase in coming decades as the number of Alzheimer’s cases continues to rise.
Source: Northwestern University Alzheimer’s Disease Center. PAIRS program, Boston University School of Medicine.