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Vital Signs:
DMS is a finalist for national community service recognition

Minutes before this year's Class Day celebration was to begin, Dean Stephen Spielberg, M.D., Ph.D., got word that DMS was one of three finalists being considered for a national award— the Outstanding Community Service Award of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). He quickly revised his welcoming speech so he could share the good news with the assembled multitude.

Site: Soon after, the AAMC began scheduling site visits to the finalists. In July, it was DMS's turn. Three representatives from the organization spent a whirlwind day at DMS hearing presentation after presentation about student-run community service projects; making a visit to the Good Neighbor Clinic, the local free clinic in White River Junction, Vt.; and meeting with people from several community agencies.

Spielberg told the AAMC guests that he was impressed by DMS's community service program before he even accepted the position of dean last year. "I saw here at Dartmouth, embedded in the psyche, a sense of community outreach," he said. "I wanted to be a part of that."

"We've intentionally tried to embed community service in our culture," noted Joseph O'Donnell, M.D., director of community service programs. He loves to talk about the wonderful volunteer work that DMS students do. "The stories take your breath away," he says.

DMS's dedication to community service can be traced all the way back to the School's founder, Dr. Nathan Smith, who recognized the importance of meeting community needs. In 1991, the DMS Student Government formalized the concept by founding the Community Service Committee, which still exists as a student-run organization that sponsors projects to meet community health needs, provide community education, and promote social justice. In 1995, DMS received the American Medical Student Association's Paul Wright Award for outstanding community service. Back then, nearly 80% of the first- and second-year students were involved in one or more volunteer projects. Today it's almost 100%.

Endless: The projects are many and varied: students work in free medical and dental clinics; volunteer with community agencies such as Planned Parenthood and a local home for unwed mothers; help people with AIDS and victims of domestic violence; befriend children with chronic illnesses or special needs; teach high-school and college students about substance abuse; volunteer on wilderness response teams; work with underserved populations internationally . . .

The list goes on.

One of the longest-standing programs is Partners in Health Education, which grew from the vision of former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D., after he joined the DMS faculty in the early 1990s. The program pairs medical students with area elementary-school teachers to provide age-appropriate health education to local schoolchildren. Another important initiative is the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which provides a mechanism for students from Dartmouth Medical School, the University of Vermont, and Vermont Law School to develop projects that address unmet health-care needs in their communities.

Better: Although the community service program has been a success by any measure, DMS wants to make it even better. Recently, O'Donnell, student leaders, faculty members, and community advocates undertook a formal review of students' community service experiences. The group's recommendations include improving messages about service during the application process, emphasizing community service more at matriculation and orientation, fostering leadership skills, improving faculty mentoring, connecting better to community needs, and disseminating information about the experiences to inspire others.

The AAMC's Outstanding Community Service Award, established in 1993, recognizes community service programs that go beyond the historical role of academic medicine to reach communities whose needs are not being met through the traditional health-care delivery system. The winner of the award will be announced at the 2004 AAMC annual meeting in Boston in November.

Laura Stephenson Carter

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