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Introduction: Medical student training and experiences in nursing homes are often viewed as negative; however, long-term care services represent a growing aspect of our medical system that receives little attention in medical education. The University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine Learning by Living Nursing Home Immersion Project accelerates students learning about older adult care and the importance of empathy. Methods: Learning by Living applies qualitative ethnographic/autobiographic research methods to answer the question: “What is it like for me to live the life of an older adult nursing home resident?” Two first year medical students (female, 25 y/o & male, 27 y/o) were “admitted” into two different nursing homes for 11 days each. The students were wheelchair reliant from their assigned diagnoses of dominant-side paralysis secondary to stroke and aspiration pneumonia; requiring standard procedures of care experienced by older adults residents with similar conditions. Data were collected in the form of journal notes for pre-fieldwork, fieldwork, and post-fieldwork and included subjective and objective reporting of observations, experiences, and resident encounters. Analyses included journal review and thematic categorization and coding through content analysis. Results: Four themes of significance intersected for the two medical students: 1) control; 2) quality of life; 3) communication; and 4) isolation. Being immersed in nursing home life provided the students with firsthand experiences of loss and challenges faced by nursing home residents. This aided students’ learning about empathy and communication as key components of providing health care. Conclusion: This experience imparted knowledge to the medical students’ about aging, dignity, and the importance of making meaningful connections in order to thrive. These insights provided a gateway to establish a model of patient-centered care that is comprehensive and empathic for the older adult population.


Originally published online March 2016 in SciRes.

Hondros-McCarthy, I. , Barber, P. and Gugliucci, M. (2016) Learning by Living: Empathy Learned through an Extended Medical Education Immersion Project. International Journal of Clinical Medicine, 7, 236-244. doi:10.4236/ijcm.2016.73025

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