Prenatal Partnership Has Lasting Benefits for Future Doctors and Patients

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When Emily Ballenger of San Jose delivers her twins in August at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, she’ll also be credited with helping train a medical student in the art of patient-centered care and relationship building.

That’s because, early in her pregnancy, Ballenger was partnered with a medical student as part of an elective course at the Stanford School of Medicine. First-year medical student Sunny Kumar attended almost all Ballenger’s prenatal appointments with her as a support person, and learned lessons that can only come from time spent with a real patient.

“In the preclinical years of medical school – years one and two – this class stands apart as a unique experience, really following a single patient over an extended period of time,” says Kumar.

The course is designed to help medical students experience pregnancy from the patient’s point of view, and provides a months-long opportunity to develop a relationship with a patient that can inform the future physicians’ work no matter what field of medicine they choose. The course directors are Yasser El-Sayed, MD, obstetrician-in-chief at Stanford Children’s Health and professor of obstetrics and maternal-fetal medicine at the School of Medicine, and Janelle Aby, MD, clinical associate professor of pediatrics.

Emily and her husband, James, are also planning to have Kumar attend their babies’ birth as an additional support person, as well as the first few pediatric appointments, as parents in the program often do. The focus for the student is on identifying with the patient’s experience, more than on their role as a medical provider.

With several members of her immediate and extended family in, or preparing for, careers in medicine, Ballenger knew how valuable such a partnership could be for future doctors. “Before I met him, I was nervous,” she says. “But then he showed up and we talked for about 20 minutes, and it was like making a new friend.”

While many medicals schools today have similar programs, Stanford’s course has been available since at least 1991. The mom and the medical student often develop a unique bond that can leave a big impression on the future physician.

Ballenger’s obstetrician is Susan Crowe, MD, a clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the School of Medicine and director of Outpatient Breastfeeding Medicine Consultative Services at Stanford Children’s Health. Crowe has long supported the benefits of the program. “I encourage my patients to participate because it’s a win for future care of obstetric and pediatric patients,” says Crowe. “I really believe that the patient-centered care we strive for can be better achieved if we train our physicians to really learn from and listen to our patients themselves. One of the biggest strengths of the program is that the patient perspective comes first. It sets the groundwork for that way of thinking in terms of training our medical students.”

The extra support during pregnancy is a win for participating moms, too. “I just know I have the best of care right now,” Ballenger says. “I have every level of doctor looking out for me! It’s pretty cool.”

Kumar’s future patients may take away the best benefit of all. “I can say wholeheartedly that the human connection is what really drew me to medicine,” he says. “And that’s something that I will continue to value throughout my career. Having this exposure early on has helped to emphasize the importance of that connection.”

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