Valentina Harmjanz often tapped into music on her smartphone to connect with older patients she visited at William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital.
The UT Southwestern medical student met with patients as part of the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), a joint effort between UTSW and the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College at the University of Texas at Dallas that sends student volunteers to help geriatric patients retain their cognitive skills and maintain their physical well-being during their hospital stay.
“We’re someone at the bedside who will listen and provide an extra source of support,” Ms. Harmjanz said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to get to know so many people from different backgrounds while aiding in their recovery and preventing the development of possible complications.”
Valentina Harmjanz is a fourth-year medical student at UT Southwestern who volunteered with the Hospital Elder Life Program.
HELP is a national effort, supported by the American Geriatrics Society, that has proved to enhance the care of hospitalized older adults while reducing costs.
Although many hospitals use older volunteers, UT Southwestern’s HELP is staffed by pre-health honors students from UT Dallas, with a goal of educating future health professionals about the importance of geriatric care.
“The geriatrics field is failing to attract new doctors, even though demand is growing as the population ages,” said Jessica Voit, M.D., Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Geriatric Medicine, and founder and Director of HELP at UTSW.
Making a difference today – and tomorrow – was Dr. Voit’s mission when she introduced HELP to UT Southwestern.
“This program exposes students very early in their education and training to the importance of geriatrics as a specialty and the intricacies of caring for older adults – which are useful skills even if they eventually choose another field of medicine,” she said.
Students are trained in the program’s key elements, including cognitive orientation and therapeutic activities, nutrition and hydration, and sleep enhancement strategies. Once trained, the students support physicians from the hospital’s Division of Geriatric Medicine via regular visits with at-risk patients at Clements University Hospital.
“Hospitalization can be very unsettling for older patients, especially those with certain risk factors, such as cognitive issues, vision and hearing impairments, or lack of mobility,” Dr. Voit said. “The stress and uncertainty of being in the hospital and the disruption of familiar routines can lead to delirium and functional decline, along with issues that delay recovery such as dehydration or lack of sleep. Our HELP volunteers do a fantastic job of interacting with and assisting our patients to ensure we are optimizing their care.”
In addition to providing conversation and human connection, student volunteers include what is known as “orientating communication” into their discussions with patients, helping remind them of the time of day, date, location, or even upcoming holidays or events. To provide additional cognitive stimulation, they engage with patients via crossword puzzles or board games. They may also help patients with their meals to ensure proper nutrition and hydration.
Jessica Voit, M.D., is Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and founder and Director of HELP at UTSW.
Ms. Harmjanz started with HELP in 2019 as an undergrad at UT Dallas and continued as a medical student at UT Southwestern. She said her experience in HELP influenced her choice of medical specialties. As a fourth-year medical student, she is applying to family medicine residency programs and plans to make caring for older patients a focus of her future practice.
“No matter what specialty or health profession one might eventually pursue, working with older adults will likely become a part of most physicians’ practices,” Ms. Harmjanz said. “The skills and abilities you gain while volunteering with HELP are foundational for any patient care experience.”
UT Southwestern’s HELP is supported by grants from the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program Alumni Association and the Texas Medical Association as well as assistance from Clements University Hospital and the Mildred Wyatt & Ivor P. Wold Center for Geriatric Care at UTSW.
U.S. News and World Report has recognized UT Southwestern as one of the nation’s top hospitals for geriatric care.
About UT Southwestern Medical Center
UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 19 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.