Students Devise a Volunteer Program to Connect Durham Patients to Resources

October 16, 2020

Team meeting.
Dr. Howard Eisenson, Chief Medical Officer of Lincoln Community Health Center, presents information about the clinic and the important role of community health centers during a team meeting in October 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Sahil Sandhu)

Addressing the social determinants of health – such as food security, housing conditions, employment and education – is a critical step in reducing health disparities. Durham’s Lincoln Community Health Center is at the cutting edge of reimagining the role of primary care by screening for and responding to patients’ social needs. The Bass Connections Help Desk team designed and implemented a novel approach to support this effort.

Four students standing outside.
Sahil Sandhu, Kate Kutzer, Diwas Gautam and Erika Dennis take a break in Duke Gardens in Fall 2019. As the Health Services Delivery Taskforce sub-team, they were responsible for operations of the Help Desk, including the training and oversight of volunteers. (Photo: Courtesy of Sahil Sandhu)

Initiated by Duke undergraduates and graduate students, the Help Desk program trains Duke student volunteers to connect patients with social services and community resources.

“Many of our volunteers are prehealth and nursing or med students, and they’re learning about the needs of the Durham community,” said Sahil Sandhu ’20, who led the team along with Janet Prvu Bettger and Connor Drake. ”This will help them be better prepared to contribute after they graduate.”

“Help Desk has strengthened my knowledge about civic and community engagement, which is truly at the heart of what we do [as nurses]. It has inspired me to provide a more person-centered approach to care and take a step back to explore the patient’s background.” –Erika Dennis, Accelerated B.Sc. in Nursing ’19

When COVID-19 interrupted regular activities and increased residents’ need for services, the team quickly reoriented its focus. Lincoln asked the team to make calls to past patients as well as new ones. Team members recruited additional student volunteers and developed robust online training with modules, case studies, role-playing exercises, database training and Lincoln onboarding. The team also merged with the Duke Student Collaborative on Health Policy to expand the community resource directory with the help of 20 students and a partnership with the Community Empowerment Fund. Read more on the Duke Global Health Institute website.

“[I’ve learned] that teamwork doesn’t necessarily have to mean doing everything together, rather it is dividing tasks among team members based on their expertise and coming together for the bigger picture and feedback. Our team divided tasks among each other, which kept each of us accountable and helped us complete our goals. Moving forward, as we work with different groups or continue to work on this project, we will be mindful of this lesson.” –Diwas Gautum ’21

Help Desk logo.Students and faculty are moving this work forward through a 2020-2021 project team, Help Desk: Scaling Volunteer Models that Address Patients’ Social Needs. The team’s partners are Lincoln Community Health Center, North Carolina Central University, Duke Children’s Primary Care Roxboro Street and Duke University Hospital Emergency Room.

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