Beyond the Eye Exam: Cultural competency and compassion at core of training

faculty instructs student on eye exam equipment in clinic setting

“Two of the most valuable things students learn here are culturally competent care and multidisciplinary care,” Dr. Xu says.

Meng Meng Xu, OD, is the Director of Eye Care Services and a preceptor at South Boston Community Health Center, one of NECO’s community health centers (CHCs) where student interns learn more than clinical skills.

“Two of the most valuable things students learn here are culturally competent care and multidisciplinary care,” Dr. Xu says. “They see that the community a patient belongs to is an integral part of them, and how it affects their health. And they learn that eye care is part of the larger health picture — to see the patient as a whole person, not just a pair of eyes.”

Many CHC patients speak languages other than English, and come from cultures and underserved communities that students may not be familiar with. Interns are taught to maintain eye contact with the patient when conducting exams through an interpreter, how to advocate for a patient’s overall health-related needs, and that nobody will be turned away from accessing their right to healthcare.

“Our students are taught they should not simply write ‘patient is non-compliant’ in a record. Instead, they should find out what the barriers to compliance are,” Dr. Xu explains. Perhaps a patient doesn’t have a refrigerator for storing their glaucoma medication, or they need help arranging transportation to a follow-up appointment. Students learn that treatment will only be successful if these needs are also addressed, and gain first-hand experience in co-managing patients and communicating with other healthcare professionals as part of an integrated team.

NECO has expanded its community involvement since it began collaborating with CHCs 50 years ago, adding more clinics to the network and treating patients at homeless shelters. According to Dr. Xu, prospective students often ask about the types of public health programs the college offers, and have a greater interest in healthcare inequities.

Dr. Xu believes the lessons students learn from CHC-based training will carry over after graduation. “Many students have expressed an interest in doing community eye care residencies,” she says. “They learn how much impact social determinants have on patient care outcomes, and their future practice will reflect this. I think the whole profession is moving toward that, because this generation is more public health savvy and wants to be culturally inclusive in all that they do.”

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