LivAbility Magazine
Three doctors behind a desk face an applicant.

By Gene Heppard

I am fairly confident that you or someone you know has had the moment of realization that a medical professional knows little or nothing about your disability or the knowledge to have a discussion regarding how you manage everyday life.

Maybe you find yourself navigating uncharted terrain as a newly-disabled individual (or that of a family member or close friend). Maybe you are a seasoned pro who is searching for a new medical professional due to elements out of your control. Maybe you are simply trying to take control of your health and well-being and want a medical professional who knows how to treat you – a person with a disability – with dignity and respect.

Seeking a relationship with a medical professional where your unique needs are met, your voice is heard, and that treating professional seems to know a thing or two about disability issues can be an exhaustive exercise in futility. I think the band Smash Mouth said it best in their song Allstar, “Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb.”

Well, fear not fellow readers. The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University have teamed up to address this glaring oversight and disregard for basic human understanding. Together, these institutions of higher education are forging a new direction in patient and medical professional care by educating current students in the medical field in disability issues and etiquette. Please say hello to CHMP!

The Community Health Mentorship Program (CHMP), under the direction of Dr. Sarah Coles MD, is a collaboration between the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University.

This program matches a team of 3-4 inter-professional healthcare students, including physician assistant, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and nutrition and medical students with a Community Health Mentor. Mentors are members of the community with all types of disabilities.

The CHMP is designed to give healthcare students an opportunity to learn what really matters to individuals living with medical conditions. Students learn directly from a mentor what it means to have a health condition, how that changes over time and how the healthcare system impacts that person’s life. Students learn how home environment, family and relationships affect their mentor’s health and well-being. Students also learn how insurance, finances and mobility affect their mentor’s healthcare. The student team and mentor meet approximately every six weeks for one year for 1.5 – 2 hours for a total of eight visits. Each visit focuses on a specific topic; however, open conversation is encouraged between the students and their mentors.

The Community Health Mentor is the most important member of the team. The mentors’ participation and willingness to share their personal stories are vital to the learning experience of the students. Mentors also provide feedback about their experience with their students. This is a wonderful chance for mentors to develop meaningful relationships with students and play an essential role in training future healthcare professionals.

Current topics in the CHMP include:

-Students begin their first visit by taking a Comprehensive Medical History of their Mentors.

-Students and Mentors discuss individual Barriers to Care and Community Needs and Resources.

-Students discuss Activities of Daily Living with their Mentors.

-Students conduct a Medication and Pharmaceutical Review with their Mentors.

-Students discuss a Nutrition Assessment with their Mentors.

-Students conduct a Home Needs Assessment with their Mentors.

-Students and their Mentors discuss Advanced Directives and Goals and Values in Healthcare.

-Students and Mentors discuss Advocacy and ways to improve the healthcare system and patient experience.

In the year I’ve been a CHMP mentor, I have forged a close relationship with the students. We meet every six weeks to discuss specific topics pertinent to their current class load and internships. Often, our discussion evolves into other areas of concern that the students have witnessed or noticed within their studies. I openly share my own experiences, both positive and negative, in order to prepare them for real-life scenarios.

Our discussions have been very open and informative on both sides of the issues. Asking follow-up questions and sharing individual experiences has opened my eyes to the difficulties students face in today’s medical arena. Hearing my story has hopefully given them insight into a world they view as a caring bystander. I think we’ve each learned more than we first expected.

Community Health Mentor Program

Image of Gene Heppard

Gene Heppard

Gene Heppard has been the Director of Disability Resources & Services and TRiO Programs at Phoenix College for the last 12 years. He previously worked at Arizona State University and Mesa Community College.

Gene completed a Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership at Northern Arizona University, and firmly believes in the opportunities available for achieving a higher education degree.

Gene hails from a small Midwestern city in Illinois. He has called Arizona home for the past 22 years.