LIFE shows students how chronic illness and interprofessional teams can have life changing impact

Now in its third year, the Longitudinal Interprofessional Family-based Experience (LIFE) is living up to its name by offering a look at how both illness and collaborative health care can change lives.

Natalya Salganik is a familiar face around interprofessional education. A Pharm.D. candidate in U-M’s College of Pharmacy, Salganik has taken a variety of IPE courses during her time as a student, while also being actively involved in the Michigan Center for Interprofessional Education’s (C-IPE) Student Advisory Council as a co-chair. So when the opportunity arose to participate in LIFE, she jumped at the chance. 

Salganik, along with over 200 other learners from across U-M’s three campuses, participated in the co-curricular LIFE activity from the end of January through early April 2023. For most of the participants, LIFE was not required for their degrees or a course. They choose to participate for the experience and the unique opportunity to interact with patients and students across different health science disciplines.

LIFE participants met virtually throughout the course. They began with a kickoff meeting where they learned about the social determinants of health and met their interprofessional teams. Each team included about seven students, coming from a variety of disciplines within the health science programs at all three U-M campuses.

“My teammates represented nursing and several undergraduate programs of various fields (e.g., trauma-informed care, pre-health),” shared Salganik. “Our team had fantastic collaboration and communication, which optimized the connection we had with our family advisor.”

The heart of LIFE is working with an interprofessional team of fellow students to interview a patient with a chronic illness through the Office of Patient Experience (OPE) at Michigan Medicine. The teams are responsible for interviewing their patient advisor twice throughout the experience. Often this includes speaking with the patient’s caregiver or family members, including spouses, parents or children, known as family advisors.

“We were surprised by just how much we could connect with our family advisor in only two sessions! Her warmth, genuineness and ability to earnestly reflect on her experiences with the health care system allowed us to understand how to be better health care professionals in the future,” said Salganik.

“Our family advisor was a political scientist within her career and had extensive experience advocating for her husband’s care and for the care of her community. This inspired our group as we considered how we can take these advocacy practices within our future careers. I felt inspired by the patient’s advocacy efforts, particularly when she mentioned that students can get involved in advocacy and make tangible changes within our health system. That motivates me to continue my current advocacy work and strengthen my patient advocacy skills.”

For a majority of students, LIFE is voluntary and co-curricular. During the first two years, around 50 students participated. This year, students from the Bachelor of Science in nursing and the Doctor of Physical Therapy programs were required to participate, leading to a final enrollment of 237 students. Next year, the team is hoping to double participation by embedding it in the curriculum for even more health professional students. Additionally, the online modality — a course innovation arising out of the pandemic — has helped reduce barriers to participation and offers greater diversity of perspectives than would be available by meeting in person. 

Though still very new, LIFE is already gaining attention around campus. It was recognized last year with the prestigious Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize. Debra Mattision, clinical associate professor of social work and a co-faculty lead for LIFE, has been actively involved in the program’s development.

“The LIFE IPE experiential program is indeed full of life,” shared Mattison. “It recognizes that academic learning is more than just transactional individual discipline-specific learning and is also more than intellectual learning.  It is about collaborative team learning and involves social, emotional and relational learning as students engage with real patients to witness both the immense challenges and the amazing resilience of those who live with chronic illness and their loved ones.  Students witness how both illness and excellent team health care can change lives, and in the process they become health care providers who are themselves changed. Learning doesn’t get any more alive than this!”

“This truly could not be done without the partnership with OPE. That we had so many patient advisors willing to be a part of students’ education is amazing and inspiring,” added Hannah Edwards, curriculum administrative specialist for C-IPE.

Beyond faculty, OPE and C-IPE staff, students are key players in the success of LIFE. Blake Hardin, a first year medical student, and Alisha Razi, an undergraduate at UM-Dearborn, had positive experiences as participants in 2023 and plan to return as part of the LIFE planning team for 2024.

“Going into LIFE, I knew that I was passionate about advocating and caring for patients with disabilities and chronic illnesses, so I was grateful to hear more about the experience of the patient with a complex medical condition and their mom….Going forward, this experience taught me to appreciate working in interprofessional teams and groups with diverse backgrounds and perspectives,” shared Hardin.

“I think it helped me be more mindful of my role, both in a team and in the patient’s life. I am not the only person who is working with a patient at a time; often they have other providers working with them too. I learned that I should be mindful of what other treatments the patient is going through and that it is my responsibility to communicate with those other providers. Another thing I learned is that there’s no ‘leader’ or person who has the final say in an interdisciplinary team. No discipline is more important than the other when working with a patient because we all bring different things to the table,” said Razi.