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Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Schweitzer Fellowship: Making a Difference in Local Communities

By Rachel Fryatt, MA

Students in audiology graduate programs across the country continually express interest in humanitarian missions, where they can help others who would not otherwise have access to hearing healthcare. Both national organizations and school-planned projects have become more common in AuD programs, and students have more opportunities than ever to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life patients in a humanitarian mission. There are opportunities available for students to provide hearing health care services to underserved populations and to learn core competencies, all in their own backyard.

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship provides a unique opportunity for graduate students to develop leadership skills in their community, and to showcase these skills in creating a community-based program. Named after physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, the fellowship aims to improve community health, expand educational opportunities, and create a systematic change in health care services.

AuD students at the University of Pittsburgh have successfully implemented audiology services through the fellowship, delivering diagnostic assessment, treatment, counseling services, and hearing aid fittings at no cost to the patient. The project, Hearing Education and Resources for Underserved Populations (HEAR-UP), is a sustainable, once-a-month service that adequately reaches individuals who cannot typically access or afford hearing health care but need adequate communication to perform daily functions and fulfil bsic including safety. The program provides an educational atmosphere for students to take what they learn in the lab and apply it to real-life clinical services.

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is an experiential learning program that develops leaders in service, with chapters in 13 cities around the country and continuing to grow. Fellows hail from a diverse selection of graduate programs, yet share a common interest in public service and creating positive change. Over the course of a year, students learn what it takes to create a sustainable service in an existing site, develop educational materials, and collaborate with past and present fellows on the topics of disparity, leadership, and engagement. After completing the fellowship, they join a Fellows-for-Life alumni network of health professionals who are committed to improving the lives of underserved persons.

Projects can touch upon any unmet need, whether it is related to the student’s interest of study or something close to their heart. “I believe we get the best and the brightest [students],” said Joan Haley, MEd, executive director of the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program. “They know a lot about their specialties, and the people in their projects are lucky to have these outstanding emerging professionals as role models.” Audiology fits wonderfully into this equation, as students learning professional skills are eager to apply what they learn, have the time and ability to take on such a project, and have the initiative to create a positive change in the community.

The high cost of hearing devices leaves underserved populations particularly vulnerable. In addition to lack of affordability, there are few options for audiologic treatment. While students and professionals alike volunteer their time for hearing screenings, there are few to no options for these patients in terms of intervention. The Schweitzer Fellowship can be utilized to bridge that gap between underserved populations and accessibility to affordable hearing health care.

At the Birmingham Free Clinic in the Southside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, a Schweitzer fellow performs services once a month under the supervision of a licensed audiologist. Materials are transported on the day of service and are restocked between appointment dates. The clinical opportunity from this site has also expanded to an educational tool, as students learn more about the needs of the population of interest. “It transcends audiology into health care issues, accessibility, and the impact of hearing loss and communication challenges on basic human needs,” said Catherine Palmer, PhD, director of the Doctor of Audiology program at the University of Pittsburgh.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UMPC) Center for Audiology and Hearing Aids, under the direction of Dr. Palmer, has committed expertise and organizational support in the implementation of this service. A UPMC audiologist covers the free clinic service and also serves as a preceptor for the audiology student in the fellowship. The UPMC Eye and Ear Foundation provides financial support to purchase diagnostic equipment, hearing aids, and additional supplies. The audiology clinical coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh engages students in these clinics, making the service a sustainable resource for both patients and students.

The University of Pittsburgh AuD program supports the Schweitzer fellows in their endeavors to expand audiology access within the community. With the commitment of long-term support from both the university and the medical center, audiology services at these free clinics will remain available as an exceptional educational opportunity for AuD students.

While student involvement in the Schweitzer Fellowship is not necessarily required for the implementation of services at a free clinic, it has become a unique collaboration. Fellows can think more critically about the challenges faced by underserved persons. “From a clinical perspective the program allows our students to accrue experiences across a more diverse group of patients than would otherwise be available,” shared Elaine Mormer, PhD, clinical education coordinator for the AuD program. There has been positive reception from the faculty mentors as well. “It also provides a structure in which to pursue new programs and holds the entire group accountable which I think helped us make sure we were creating something sustainable for not only the patient population we serve but the students we are educating,” said Palmer.

Any outreach to underserved population to increase accessibility to affordable hearing health care is a worthwhile endeavor, but students don’t have to buy a plane ticket to reach these patient populations.  Through the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, AuD students have the chance to serve right in their own communities.

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Author Information: 
Ms. Fryatt is a third-year AuD student at the University of Pittsburgh.