BU’s Social Work, Medical Students Provide Covid-19 Support Through THRIVE Call Center

At Boston Medical Center (BMC), the region’s largest safety-net hospital, when patients are diagnosed with COVID-19 and sent home to quarantine, they often have concerns that reach far beyond their symptoms. How will they get food and medicine if they can’t leave the house? What if they fall behind on their rent and utilities? These patients are finding help through the THRIVE call center, a collaboration between BU’s School of Social Work, School of Medicine and BMC.

Second year medical students Berit Lindell, Divya Satishchandra, and Kirsten Mojziszek started the call center in May 2020 under the direction of Dr. Pablo Buitron de la Vega, assistant professor at the School of Medicine, and sponsored by Dr. Thea James,  vice president of mission and associate chief medical officer at BMC. Taking it to the next level, they now collaboratively lead a team of social work students including Katy Janvier and Cindy Tao and a dozen medical students who call COVID-diagnosed patients to assess their needs and connect them with community and hospital resources. Under the direction of Macro department chair Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez and PhD candidate Noelle Dimitri from the School of Social Work and Dr. Buitron de la Vega, the students then follow up in two weeks to check in, documenting all calls in the patients’ files in EPIC, BMC’s platform for electronic medical records. 

The THRIVE call center is an outgrowth of the BMC THRIVE Social Determinants of Health Screening and Referral program developed by an interdisciplinary team in 2016. “The screener was developed based on the premise that patient health is linked to the social factors that shape their lives. Housing, transportation, employment and food access are important determinants of health. Social work, as a discipline, trains students to understand the relationship between people and their environment as they have a keen awareness of community context outside of the walls of the hospital and are able to navigate that context linking patients to needed services.” explains Dr. Sprague Martinez. 

COVID-19 demanded a much more comprehensive response. “The THRIVE call center started with medical students calling patients diagnosed with COVID-19, but we quickly realized they needed more support and training to connect patients with resources,” notes Dr. Buitron de la Vega. “Social work students bring all of these other skills to the table: how to build rapport and how to talk to patients who are struggling with adverse social circumstances.”  

Dr. Sprague Martinez further explained, “social work students can engage patients in a meaningful way, assess their priorities and work with them to identify the resources that best meet their needs. This approach is patient centered and values the lived experience and expertise of patients.” The two noted the importance of teamwork and collaboration across disciplines in advancing patient care. “We need more opportunities for students to learn to collaborate and work as a team.” said, Dr. Buitron de la Vega. 

The student teams complete the calls remotely from their homes. They are able to do this thanks to three apps, which helped sponsor the project. These include Doximity Dialer, which allows student callers to display a BMC caller ID; MindMeister, a cloud-based platform that gives users the ability to visualize the call center workflows; and AuntBertha, which hosts the THRIVE directory of community resources. To provide food assistance, THRIVE Call Center partnered with the City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Food Access. When patients do not have support to get food, this program sends a box of grocery staples and produce weekly for three weeks. The entire team meets on Zoom weekly with either Dr.  Sprague Martinez or Dr. Buitron de la Vega to check in and troubleshoot any issues.

“The medical students appreciate how social work students engage patients and ask them questions. It’s not just about symptoms but improving their health and well-being by considering the environment in which they live and work,” says Dr. Sprague Martinez.

Social work and medical students alike praise the experience and find they have much to learn from each other. “When Katy and Cindy joined the team, the scope and breadth of what we were able to do expanded so much,” observes medical student lead Kirsten Mojziszek. “They are fearless in going out into the community and advocating for their patients. They have a much deeper knowledge of the resources.”

“Each field has something to contribute. Each benefits the patient,” stresses Ms. Tao. “The needs of patients are so complex. We’re most successful when we work as a team to determine what the patients’ goals are.”

“This experience has been empowering for both the medical and social work students,” Dr. Buitron de la Vega says. “Medical students are learning when to bring in a social worker. Social work students are learning what they add to patient care and that their work is valuable.”

Written by Maura King Scully.