Experiencing Our Patients’ Humanity

Varun Gopinath
Published on Apr 11, 2022. Updated on Apr 11, 2022.

Varun introduces his experience with the Northeast Ohio Medical University-Cleveland State University Partnership for Urban Health, which hopes to address complex systemic issues through multidisciplinary medical education.

The Partnership for Urban Health was founded in 2010 in an effort to address health disparities within the city of Cleveland. Reported disparities include those of life expectancy and infant mortality between different demographics.

These differences reflect the repercussions of redlining within the city after the Great Migration. One of the programmatic features is to experientially learn through the HomeHealth program, which allows first- and second-year medical students to directly work with underserved populations prior to their clinical years.

Experiential learning

HomeHealth permits students to participate in health care delivery while being directed by a primary care physician in a unique setting. Instead of being in a sanitized clinic with white walls and fluorescent lighting, students are found within peoples’ homes or within the cramped hallways of a homeless center.

There are no white coats allowed, and students are truly meeting patients where they are at. In a sense, it gives students a chance to leave their ivory towers and walk with some of our most vulnerable fellow community members.

On my most recent HomeHealth experience, I saw many men and some women walking towards the homeless center on an early Thursday winter morning. My intuition told me that many had recently been sent out from homeless shelters and now these unhoused people were coming to the center for a warm place to stay during the day and possibly gain access to other resources.

These resources include SNAP benefits, medical care, and job placement. Being a part of that day’s student HomeHealth clinic, I realized I played a part in delivering one of those fundamental resources.

In total I saw three patients during our time at the center. I tried to meet them where they were and see how I could help. As I am only a medical student, I knew that the best thing I could do was be someone who could hear them out rather than try to make a diagnosis. I tried to be a listening ear more than anything else.

One patient was worried about how her current nutrition may affect her health, seeing that she had become homeless this past February. I checked her vital signs and made sure there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary when conducting her physical.

Most importantly, I probed to why she was at the center and how she had gotten to be in front of me that day. I genuinely wanted to hear her story and make sure she felt an authentic connection instead of feeling like another case.

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Reconnecting “patient” with “person”

While the HomeHealth experience gave me an opportunity to use my medical knowledge with patients, it was, above all, an opportunity to renew my commitment to those in need.

Too often in medical school, I find myself getting lost in studying for exams and forgetting why I even decided to go into medicine. When talking to patients, I realize that I’m studying and working hard for them and being someone that listens to and walks with them. It is this aspect of medicine that I am most drawn to.

The patient is my “why” and the reason I continue on this long and arduous path.

Experiential learning opportunities like HomeHealth allow medical students to witness the inequalities that are part of our society. By working with those that are unhoused you see the world in a new paradigm.

Why do some people have nothing while others have more than they will ever need? What sort of systemic issues does a homeless population expose about what we as Americans value in society?

This social justice aspect of medicine is something that would otherwise be non-existent in my current medical education, and I value these opportunities that keep my eyes open to the world around me. Medicine, and health for this reason, is not in a vacuum. It is inextricably intertwined with socioeconomic factors.

Rather than being the white coat that divides us from our patients, opportunities like HomeHealth allow us to shed a symbolic barrier within healthcare. If we can experience our patients’ humanity, we are one step closer to achieving health equity.

About Varun

Varun is a second-year medical student at the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, Ohio. When not studying, Varun can be found training for his next marathon or meal-prepping plant-based dishes with his wife.


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