Mercer students work across health disciplines to provide care to the homeless

Physician assistant students take a quick break during the event.
Physician assistant students take a quick break during the event. Photo courtesy Kerri Garcia

More than 70 students and faculty in Mercer’s College of Health Professions joined together recently to provide a variety of services and care to individuals experiencing homelessness in Atlanta. 

The Mercerians volunteered for the annual Health Day hosted by Atlanta-based nonprofit Lazarus on Sept. 18 at North Avenue Presbyterian Church. 

Mercer’s physician assistant studies program has been involved in the event since 2015, but this was the first time it was an interprofessional experience with participants from multiple programs in the College of Health Professions, said Dr. Jill Mattingly, chair and clinical associate professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies. 

In total, more than 50 physician assistant students, seven public health students, six physical therapy students, two clinical psychology students and eight faculty members assisted with Health Day, said Erin Lepp, clinical associate professor, coordinator of physician assistant community engagement, and medical team lead for the event.

According to a 2020 report from Atlanta nonprofit Partners for Home, there are approximately 3,200 homeless people within Atlanta’s 130-square-mile area. More than 900 of those are unsheltered and sleeping on the street or in cars. Each year, Health Day aims to reach some of those individuals and provide much-needed medical services. 

“We are so grateful for our partnership with Mercer and their high level of involvement providing quality medical attention, while also caring for these individuals and the situations they are currently facing,” said Johnny Winkle, executive director of Lazarus. “One of my favorite things from the event was seeing so many medical students and professionals from multiple hospitals and universities collaborate throughout the day to diagnose and treat each guest, and that is a direct result of the hard work that Erin Lepp and Dr. Mattingly did to coordinate a team-based approach.”

With the support of many community partners, attendees received hygiene kits and boxed lunches and had the opportunity to shower, get haircuts, and utilize other services and resources, Lepp said. 

Mercer physician assistant students obtained medical histories and performed exams. Under the guidance of faculty, they developed a plan and provided treatment, said Kerri Garcia, a student in the program. Garcia said it was her first time doing this kind of work outside of the classroom, and it was really impactful to help people in the community.

Physical therapy students provided diabetic foot screenings, while a partner agency did foot maintenance and wound care, Lepp said. 

“Our students are very interested in service activities in the community,” said Dr. Jeannette Anderson, chair and clinical associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy. This fit into that capability to serve the community in need as well as practice their physical therapy skills. It also allowed them to interact with other individuals in the college.”

Public health students conducted a community needs assessment that analyzed the functionality of the event and identified areas for improvement and services that could be added in the future, said Dr. Cheryl Gaddis, chair and associate professor of practice and Master of Public Health program director. They talked with community members about their needs and experiences. The hope is that the data gathered will help inform what services and resources are offered at future events and enhance their value.

Kylie Copeland, a student in the combined physical therapy/public health program, said the assessment is about giving a voice to people and making sure they are getting the most relevant services for their health care. 

“For students to be out in the community and on site was a great reward for them,” Dr. Gaddis said. “I’m a firm believer that our students learn best when they’re able to apply what they’re learning, and this was a great opportunity for them to be able to do that.”

Clinical psychology doctoral student Kallie Liming said she conducted a health questionnaire with attendees that gauged their overall mental health. She said the assessment was structured more like a conversation, and she acted as “an open ear as well, listening to the hardships, barriers and future plans that individuals were going through.” 

From left, Dr. Jeannette Anderson, physical therapy program director; Dr. Jill Mattingly, physician assistant studies program director; and Dr. Craig Marker, clinical psychology program director, are shown at Health Day.
From left, Dr. Jeannette Anderson, physical therapy program director; Dr. Jill Mattingly, physician assistant studies program director; and Dr. Craig Marker, clinical psychology program director, are shown at Health Day. Photo courtesy Kerri Garcia

“It provided a lot of humility, and it provided some insight into some deficits that the psych field has,” Liming said. “Having this experience helped me become more flexible and have knowledge of what it looks like to work with individuals facing a multitude of (challenges).”

As a psychologist in training, having the opportunity to work with individuals in the physical therapy, physician assistant and public health disciplines was right in line with Liming’s career mission and goals. 

Through service-learning curricula, the College of Health Professions strives to get students out of the classroom and into the community, Lepp said. Health Day was a prime example of that as well as the College’s focus on interprofessional education, also known as IPE. 

“(IPE) is what helps health care function at its best,” Dr. Anderson said. “We’re part of a team. No profession is an island in health care. The patient always does better when multiple professions are at the table to attend to their needs.”

The College participates in interprofessional education events every fall and spring that brings together 400-500 students from Mercer’s health sciences programs, and outreach events like Lazarus Health Day offer additional opportunities for students to work together and with other health professionals, Lepp said. 

“The IPE model works and is very impactful,” Lepp said. “The reason I came to Mercer was to be able to do this. It’s like a dream come true to conceptualize things for students and do them. That excitement and that passion for service was ignited during this event.”

During Health Day, students saw how other disciplines serve clients and learned how to work in a professional team out in the community, Dr. Gaddis said. 

“Everyone was able to play their role and make an impact on the patient,” Garcia said. “That was one of the main things I’ll take away, leaning on everyone to do their best job and bring the best outcome for the patient.”

She said the event snapped her out of the grind of tests and studying and reminded her why the educational path she’s on is so important. 

“Seeing different people have their needs met was a really enriching experience to be a part of, and I got to see what it looks like to run a service day,” Copeland said. “I think it’s really awesome that Mercer is able to provide these events where we get to do interprofessional collaboration to provide these services. I think it’s one of the things that makes Mercer really special.”

The event also demonstrated a “real-time model of health care delivery” to vulnerable patients, Lepp said. 

“You can talk about that in a lecture, but when you take students with you and you care for people experiencing those things, it’s so much more impactful … and something they are going to carry with them into their profession,” she said. 

It also showed students how they can be servant-leaders and give back to their community, regardless of where they go on to practice, Lepp said. The College of Health Professions is looking for more opportunities to provide hands-on health outreach, Dr. Mattingly said. 

“The College of Health Professions was able to offer that wonderful wheel of care: physical therapy, physician assistant, public health and clinical psychology all working together. What it has is an amazing multi-pronged approach to caring for the underserved,” Dr. Mattingly said. “(The event was) a great way to come out of the shadow of the pandemic and start to serve the community again. The students were excited to help, and they couldn’t believe how it lit the fire again about why they are in our training program and doing what they’re doing.”

Healthy Day, hosted by nonprofit Lazarus, offered a variety of health services to individuals experiencing homelessness in Atlanta.
Health Day, hosted by nonprofit Lazarus, offered a variety of health services to individuals experiencing homelessness in Atlanta. Photo courtesy Dr. Jill Mattingly


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