Volunteering in Underserved Communities: What Premeds Should Know | Education

With the growing awareness of the number of people in the U.S. who lack health insurance or access to health care, more and more medical schools are looking for applicants with an interest in practicing in underserved areas.

Med school admissions are highly competitive, and applicants must have exceptional grades, test scores and extracurricular activities to compete for a spot at the top schools. Previous experience volunteering in a medically underrepresented community can help set an applicant apart from others.

In addition, with the amount of uninsured patients, volunteer opportunities in underserved areas are readily available for premeds to pursue.

Medical school applicants frequently encounter secondary application questions regarding their experience working with underrepresented communities and their motivation to help similar populations in the future. Although some premeds may feel that volunteer work may be just another box to check when applying to medical school, they should choose their service activities carefully, bearing in mind the full impact that working in a marginalized community may have.

Because of a shortage of doctors serving underserved populations, students are frequently able to participate in more direct patient interaction than in various other health care environments.

At a student-run clinic associated with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, researchers found students value their time spent volunteering at the clinic, and their interest and knowledge of underserved populations increased.

In addition, they improved their understanding of diseases and common challenges related to insurance and continuity of care in underserved communities.

At Einstein’s clinic and others like it, a premed can often have hands-on involvement in a patient’s care. They are frequently able to coordinate the clinic flow of patients, participate in procedures, present cases to the faculty physician and provide patient education.

This type of experience as a premed is invaluable, as the learner is able to actively engage with patients and the medical staff to learn the operations of a medical facility in detail.

As such, volunteering with underserved communities can provide premeds with significant insights into patient communication and an understanding of the issues patients in these communities face. Empathetic and effective patient communication is a crucial skill for medical students and doctors to have, so getting experience early can greatly help students in the future.

An international study published in 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives on Medical Education showed that immersing medical students in community medicine early in their med school careers not only improved their patient communication skills, but also their sensitivity to issues surrounding underserved communities. Premeds who get involved will develop increased confidence and ease in working with patients – highly desirable characteristics for medical school admissions.

Reaching out to a university hospital and inquiring about student-run clinics, looking online for free clinics in the community or seeking religious organizations that provide health services are all good places to start when looking for a volunteering opportunity in one of these areas. The experience will not only be an asset on future med school applications, but will allow prospective applicants to prepare for the dynamics of clinical medicine and patient care that they will need to master as medical students and beyond.

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