Next spring, two dozen first-year medical students will don their white coats, grab their stethoscopes and head not for a local clinic or hospital but again for Alps Elementary School on the West side of Athens.
They’ll also pack stuffed animals as they did this past October.
When the Teddy Bear Clinic gets underway, preschoolers guided by future doctors will minister to the ills and injuries of stuffed bears, dogs, cats, pigs, horses and whatever else the med students brought in.
“It’s fun and also a good thing to do for both our students and the community,” said Lara Smith, a second-year medical student who leads community service activities at the Georgia Health Sciences University-University of Georgia (GHSU-UGA) Medical Partnership program.
The Teddy Bear Clinic program was launched shortly after the new medical campus opened its doors in fall 2010. Helping Athens kids become less afraid of doctors and more willing to interact with them is the goal for the first- and second-year students who volunteer their time.
“As a new medical school, working with the community and establishing partnership is very crucial for the school and students,” said pediatrician Cheryl Dickson, the associate dean for student and multicultural affairs and the founder of the Teddy Bear Clinic.
Dickson practiced pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine for 20 years before heading south. She also organized and participated in Teddy Bear Clinics at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey and Robert Wood Johnson Med School.
“As a pediatrician, I know how important it is to help children be comfortable with doctors,” said Dickson. Events such as Teddy Bear Clinics also give students the chance to develop skills for communicating with young patients, and builds good will in the community.
So far as Dickson knows, this is the only Teddy Bear Clinic run by a medical school in Georgia. (The UGA College of Veterinary Medicine holds a “teddy bear surgery” session for kids during their annual open house.)
Fear of doctors is more than just an annoyance for parents and health care providers – it can actually pose risks to overall health. Children, like adults, can experience “white coat hypertension,” meaning that their blood pressure can shoot up to alarming levels in the doctor’s office – returning to normal levels at home.
There is some evidence that children whose blood pressure spikes at the sight of a doctor may be more likely to develop chronic hypertension later in life, according to a study done by a team at SUNY Syracuse and published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
Dickson has cared for thousands of young patients, some more anxious than others, and she coaches the medical students before they head out into the schools. They practice talking appropriately to children, responding to them, and using play to demonstrate stethoscopes and other instruments.
At Alps Elementary, the 24 students will fan out across two kindergarten classrooms. Each will work with two to three kids.
Med student Joey Krakowiak has already participated in one Teddy Bear Clinic in October, which focused on simple health-related practices such as covering coughs and washing hands thoroughly. “Of course, we did it in a ‘kid way’,” he said.
Krakowiak is at ease among children because he was a teacher before entering med school; in fact, he wants to be a pediatrician. So he sang his way through a lesson about proper hand-washing, which involves lathering up for the length of the birthday song.
“I didn’t feel awkward,” said Krakowiak. “I like children and like being with them. And you know, that’s the way to help them truly remember the time it takes to wash hands.”