We were featured in a segment on Michigan Radio/NPR:

Helping Seniors at Medical Appointments

By Kyle Norris (2010-01-25)

ANN ARBOR, MI (Michigan Radio) – They are serious about paperwork at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. At a morning meeting, staff and volunteers are reviewing pages and pages of the stuff. The papers are color-coated and studded with sticky notes pointing out places to sign.

Deborah Renner is director of volunteer service and community outreach at Jewish Family Services, or JFS for short. She’s helping volunteers go through a stack of paperwork, as part of a new program created by JFS. The people who made this program feel that all this paperwork makes their program effective and unique.

The program is Patient Partners. It trains volunteers to accompany senior citizens to their medical appointments. And the volunteers’ job is to help the senior communicate clearly with the doctor. Volunteers then document the conversation on a series of forms, aka all that paperwork.

Now there are plenty of programs that help transport seniors to their medical appointments. In this case JFS arranges transportation, and sometimes the volunteer rides along with the senior. But transportation is not the volunteer’s responsibility. The volunteers’ gig here is all about helping seniors communicate clearly.

Morris is a senior who uses the Patient Partner program. He asked that his last name not be used in this story.

Morris says before Patient Partners he wasn’t having very good experiences at his medical appointments, in part because his handwriting had declined and he found it harder to take notes. Originally he was bringing a friend along with him to his appointments to take notes.

“But the friend wasn’t prepared to do this in a systematic way,” he says, “and for example would present me afterwards with a set of notes that I couldn’t make sense of and after all my friend couldn’t either.”

But Patient Partners solves that problem, in part with all its rigorous paperwork.

Abbie Lawrence-Jacobson is the director of Older Adult Services at JFS. And she created the Patient Partners program. She explains that the volunteer and senior usually meet a few days before the appointment to fill out paperwork. Together they answer questions like

“Are you in any pain and how much is it interfering with your ability to do things you enjoy? What are specific reasons you’re going to this doctor’s appointment?” says Lawrence-Jacobson. “Sometimes our older adult clients aren’t even entirely sure, it might be a follow-up from something in the past or a family member scheduled it for them.”

In order to become a volunteer, people go through fifteen hours of training. Volunteer Patty Benson says a lot of territory is covered during that time.

“And they cover in the orientation the sorts of things that you might encounter in a visit: common medical conditions, medical lingo, and a variety of issues related to aging, memory, or cognitive deficits.”

During the training they also role-play potential scenarios that could happen between the patient, volunteer, and doctor. Lawrence-Jacobson says they learned something important from role playing, which was how easy it is for a volunteer to slip into what she calls the supportive friend mode.

“And when a doctor says I recommend having this test or procedure’ and the older adult on the van ride home afterwards says what do you think? I’ve never heard of that procedure do you know anything about it?’ It’s easy for a volunteer to say yeah my cousin had that and it worked out great.'”

Lawrence-Jacobson says they want to steer clear of having their volunteers give anything that could be construed as medical advice, in part for legal purposes. But also because that’s not what this program is about.

Morris, the senior who uses the program, says working with the volunteer helps him prepare for the appointment, ask effective questions, and helps with follow-up, like getting prescriptions filled. Overall, he rates the experience highly.

“I would say extremely valuable otherwise I’d be having medical appointments that didn’t improve my condition”

Lawrence-Jacobson says this model has a lot of potential. It’s her dream to see it recreated in different situations like with immigrants or seniors who find themselves alone in the emergency room.

The Patient Partner program is available to any senior living in Washtenaw County. It costs a senior about $20 for the service. But JFS says they work on a sliding scale and no one is turned away because of inability to pay.

Read and listen to the full Michigan Radio/NPR Article & Podcast.

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