It’s like we often say: Great doctors don’t just treat diseases. They treat people. And at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC), we think a great way to gain exposure in the “people” side of practicing medicine is through community outreach and service learning.

How Can Service Learning Make You a Better Medical School Applicant?

We sat down with Golden Jackson, PhD—AUC’s assistant dean of service-learning and community affairs—to discuss some of the top reasons to consider community service or volunteering, whether you’re a current student or someone thinking about applying to AUC.

Reason 1: Technical skills.

In a practical sense, volunteering (especially with a medically oriented group) can help prospective students pick up valuable technical skills. For example, you can learn to measure a patient’s blood pressure properly or pick up other knowledge that could give you added familiarity with common procedures in the medical realm. If you’re already a student at AUC, however, service-learning gives you the opportunity to hone and continue developing the various skills you’ve already learned from faculty during the Medical Sciences curriculum.

But more than that, Jackson notes, community service introduces you to the “people” side of medicine. Working directly with people means you can sharpen your patient interviewing skills and further develop your sense of empathy. Those are good lessons for a future physician to learn—you’ll need that rapport with a patient to get to the heart of what’s bothering him or her.

“Part of being a doctor is becoming comfortable talking with people who you haven’t spoken with before, and really trying to connect with them,” Jackson says. “It’s part of how you figure out what their problem might be, and what might be causing it.”

Just as important for prospective students: If you volunteer for a medically oriented group, you’re demonstrating that you’re actively trying to understand what it’s like to work in healthcare. Decision-makers on admissions committees for medical schools take note of that sort of thing.

Reason 2: Broadening your worldview.

Everyone has preconceptions about things, but those aren’t always helpful in medicine—on the contrary, being a physician means having the ability to look at things from more than one point of view. Community service can help shake up your preconceptions about a situation, broaden your worldview, and give you brand new perspectives to leverage during patient care.

“When our students do community work in St. Maarten, we really try to emphasize that you shouldn’t go out to a community with the attitude of We have this great idea, and we know this is really what you need,” Jackson says. “Because we don’t know that it’s what they need.”

Her advice? If you’re working in a community, go in there as a student, not a teacher. That’s how you pick up those different perspectives.

“When you begin to work with people—when you meet them, learn about them—you realize that people have a lot to offer, and you’re probably going to learn more from them than they’re going to learn from you,” Jackson says.

Reason 3: Better understanding of your medical specialty of interest.

Getting into community service could ultimately help you better understand the medical specialty that you’re considering as a future career.

“If you’re interested in a particular disease—something like diabetes, for example—you could join a local diabetes group or see if there’ a free clinic in your town that you can do some volunteer work for,” Jackson says.

Keep in mind, though, that the community service you choose doesn’t necessarily have to be for a medically oriented group or organization—but it should at the very least be linked to your personal goals. One example from Dr. Jackson: If you’re interested in pediatrics, consider volunteering at a school in some capacity, even if it’s something like tutoring children or reading to them. Though those things aren’t directly tied to medically treating a child, they help you understand kids—and as a pediatrician, you’ll need to have a deep understanding of the patient population you’ll be treating.

Most importantly—when you select an organization or group to volunteer with, make sure you’re being intentional about it, Jackson notes. In other words, don’t volunteer just to say you volunteered somewhere. Rather, make sure your community service ultimately ties in to your career goals as a future physician.

“Doing a lot of community service, is wonderful, and it’s very needed,” she says. “But make sure you find something that connects with your own interests.”

Want an example of the types of community service AUC students participate in? Check out this recap of AUC’s Community Action Day.

Golden Jackson, PhD, is assistant dean of service-learning and community affairs. At AUC, she  works with faculty, students and community groups to support the design of service projects that contribute to community priorities and to the academic learning of students enrolled in medical school.

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Posted February 15, 2016 01:59 PM

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