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Healthy Aging Initiative

Med school to serve rural elderly

New initiative designed to acquaint teams of students with geriatric medicine

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Beginning this fall, teams of Central Michigan University students from multiple health care-related disciplines will visit area rural homes to check the health of residents.

It's part of a new collaboration among CMU and the commissions on aging for Isabella, Gratiot, and Clare counties. The program will serve the traditionally medically underserved rural community and expose students in health professions, medical, social work and other fields to geriatric medicine.

The Healthy Aging Initiative was devised by a team of faculty at CMU and recently received a $422,455 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.


Medical school faculty members Robert Petersen and Dr. Jyotsna Pandey are overseeing the program for second-year medical students.

"Our role as a medical school is to provide experiences to new medical students to the point where they can say 'this is what I want to do.' Part of that is to help students realize that geriatrics is important," said Robert Petersen, who is chair of the foundations of medicine program and is helping implement the program with fellow medical school faculty member Dr. Jyotsna Pandey. The program will be required of second-year medical students.

Training and doing

As part of the training, interprofessional teams of three students will visit older adults at home and do preventative health assessments that include fall risk, hearing and vision checkups, social isolation assessments and simple oral health checkups, in addition to checking for evidence of substance abuse.

Team members' training and interests may include physician assistant, audiology, public health, gerontology, medicine, speech-language pathology, social work, pharmacy, athletic training, nursing and public health.

"Through this initiative, we're supporting programs that will help Michigan residents live full lives, according to their needs and choices, well into older age." — Kari Sederburg

The teams will include one medical student, one social work student and one student from any of the other health professions, Pandey said. A faculty member will supervise the teams but not join in the home visits.

The social work student will enter the home first to inform the patient about the assessment, then leave so the two other students can do the assessment. They later will meet to determine whether the social-work student needs to follow up on any needs, Pandey said.

The need and goals

Exposure to geriatrics is the key, Pandey said.

"Geriatrics is kind of a newer focus of attention because of the increasing life span of the population and the increasing number of people in the elderly population," Petersen said. "We need people trained to understand the signs, symptoms and treatment of health issues of this population."

The need is growing. U.S. census data predicts that by 2030, one quarter of Michigan residents will be over age 60, and the fastest-growing demographic is women over age 85.

In addition, more than 40 percent of older adults are overweight, 80 percent have at least one chronic condition, and nearly half of all individuals over the age of 85 have some form of dementia.

"Through this initiative, we're supporting programs that will help Michigan residents live full lives, according to their needs and choices, well into older age," said Kari Sederburg, the Health Fund's senior program officer.

The long-term goal is to create a self-sustaining curriculum program that will give students experience working in interprofessional teams, meet the health needs of this growing part of the local community and serve as a basis to recruit future health professionals to choose and stay in the field of geriatrics.

Gathering clients

In addition to informing incoming students and working with the commissions on aging to identify households, Pandey and other faculty are spreading the word by distributing flyers and holding community seminars through a collaboration with the Commission on Aging. Also, a collaboration with the nuns at Sacred Heart Mercy Health Care Center, a nonprofit founded by the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, has strengthened the effort

But in an unexpected snag, some people are reluctant to receive a free service.

"People need to understand that while this is a free service, it is not charity," said Pandey, who is working to ease that reluctance.

"They are helping us as much as we are helping them in training the next generation of health care professionals to understand the whole spectrum of medical care," Petersen said. "Plus, this gives our students a meaningful exposure to underserved populations. The participants play a huge part in the success of this program."

Petersen also named AAAS fellow

For his contributions to cell biology, Robert Petersen recently was named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

As a fellow, Petersen joins an illustrious group of scientists that has included Thomas Edison; anthropologist Margaret Mead; and American biologist James Watson, who helped discover the structure of DNA. Five of 2017's Nobel laureates also were AAAS Fellows. 

"I'm excited, and I feel incredibly humbled and honored," Petersen said. "There are a lot of very talented people who are fellows. It's humbling to be included in that group."

Consideration for fellowship requires nomination by three current fellows.

In February, Petersen will receive a special rosette pin, the emblem of AAAS fellowship. 

The journal Science formally announced the award.

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