Our patients, our teachers

By Amber Daugherty

Jennifer Schultz stands in a patient room at St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto.

Jennifer Schultz, patient teacher

Feb. 25, 2020 – It’s been two years since Jennifer Schultz first stood in front of a group of medical students and shared her story – the one about going through a breast cancer diagnosis, months of treatment, surgery and recovery. Since then, she’s refined the story and told it to hundreds of other future surgeons, helping them connect the patient they may be operating on with the human who’s being impacted in such an enormous way.

“The Patient as Teacher program helps students see beyond the medical – it opens their eyes to the lives, not the diseases, lived during cancer,” she said. “I tell the students every time that the day you diagnose someone with cancer, you’re dropping a bomb on them – you don’t know what’s going on in their lives but now every aspect of that life is impacted. This program helps bring that into focus.”

In the two years since launching, the Patient as Teacher program has shifted significantly, starting out as an opportunity for real patients to tell their story front to back to medical students. Since then, it’s become much more of an engagement opportunity where students and patients connect on a human level and talk about the impact they can have on one another. Dr. Jory Simpson, the St. Michael’s surgeon who founded the program in 2017 and is now the course director, and the interim head of the division of general surgery, said that’s largely to do with the introduction of facilitator Stephanie Mooney.

“Not everyone is natural storyteller and not everyone’s story is relevant to all of our students,” he said. “Stephanie worked with our patient teachers to design a storytelling workshop and then a formal orientation session that happened this summer to help make patient teachers more comfortable. She also connects with them before they go into each session and debriefs with them after because for some people, telling their story can be quite emotional. She’s extremely knowledgeable and committed to making this the best it can be for everyone involved.”

Stephanie Mooney

Stephanie Mooney,
experience and
engagement specialist

For Mooney, it’s just part of her job as the specialist who oversees Unity Health’s patient and family partner program.

“Patient teachers are generously sharing their story which can be triggering so I wanted to make sure they were fully supported,” she said. “So when I took on the facilitator role, I met with all of the patient teachers one-on-one so I could understand their story and help them outline what parts they wanted to share. I enjoy connecting with people so I thought that was important to do.”

With Mooney’s introduction came a new level of dialogue between patient teachers and students. When someone has shared their story and is met with silence, Mooney gently nudges, asking students to respond directly to one aspect of the story. Patient teachers also comment on one another’s stories, sharing similarities and differences.

“I think that helps the students take even more away from it because they can see a different cycle of care,” said Schultz. “We as patient teachers will talk back and forth and say, ‘Oh you had that experience? That’s funny because this is what mine looked like.’”

One of the other new pieces is that more time is spent at the beginning of each session where students give an introduction about who they are and what specialties they might be interested in pursuing. Part of the patient teacher sessions have been about being a bit more flexible with the storytelling so if they have a story about part of their journey that relates to what many of the students are currently experiencing, they might bring that up first.

Dr. Jory Simpson

Dr. Jory Simpson, founder of Patient as Teacher program

“It’s all about listening to see how they can relate with real life experiences,” said Mooney. “And we make sure to ask the students about any positive or negative patient experiences they’ve run into during their rotation – often, everything comes back to communication so these sessions are an opportunity for them to learn from real patients about how they could connect better with the people they’re caring for.”

One of the most talked about parts of the program is at the end when, after students have met multiple patient teachers and completed their rotation, they’re asked to create a piece of art that reflects what they learned. Students have created paintings, poetry, photography, songs and more. Starting next year, patient teachers will be invited to their presentations so they can see what kind of an impact their story had.

“For me it will give me a sense of what these students took away from my story,” said Schultz. “I can’t wait to see more of the artwork because it really shows what they learned and what part of our stories they connected with and will take with them.”