UIC student volunteers answer the call to help make vaccination appointments 

University of Illinois Chicago Honors College students are lending a hand to the COVID-19 vaccination effort through Project SUPPORTStudents Urging Positive Patient Outreach & Recruitment Team. 

The team of 40 undergraduate and seven graduate students have made over 4,000 phone calls through the first four weeks to UI Health patients to assist them in scheduling vaccinations. The project is being led by Dr. Bhrandon Harris, an assistant professor at UIC’s College of Medicine and physician at the University Village Family Medicine Clinic. 

Our primary objective is to help patients get scheduled and vaccinated. The focus has been to start with patients in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 and targeting those who do not have access to EPIC MyChart (patient online portal) and no email,” Harris said. 

The student volunteers underwent extensive training to deliver information in concise, understandable way, as well as preparation to answer basic questions about the COVID-19 vaccines. The students use a special hospital calling account that allows them to make calls on behalf of the hospital yet protects their own identities.  

“Project SUPPORT is a great example of how our university has leveraged its strengths to improve health equity by breaking down even the new digital barriers in access to care,” said Ilir Zenku, assistant vice chancellor for health affairs. 

For many of the student volunteers, the project has been a purposeful experience. 

The pandemic has personally affected student volunteer Nandi Tumbayar, a biological sciences major; she lost a family member to COVID-19. 

It is such an important project, targeting those who can’t get the vaccine and in ZIP codes with inequities. It’s super beneficial for the community to get vaccinated, and to raise the floor in healthcare,” she said. 

In Tumbayar’s experience, patients are mainly thrilled to receive a call from her because finding vaccine appointments has been a significant barrier for some, she said.  She is hearing from patients that transportation, disabilities and economics also are creating roadblocks to vaccination. Helping patients navigate through the system has been rewarding for her. 

“One individual I spoke to was disabled and elderly. Just hearing how much the vaccine meant to her, and how thankful she was made (volunteering) so meaningful to me. Helping even one person get that appointment really affected me,” Tumbayar said.  

For chemistry major Atiiyah Ibrahim, who was on a pre-pharmacy track, this volunteer opportunity may mean a career change for her. 

“I learned a lot more about the vaccine and how it works. Knowing how the science acts is really interesting to me,” Ibrahim said. “I’ve been pre-pharmacy, but I’ve actually started looking into going into medicine. I’m studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test). There’s a lot of information that people don’t know, and being a doctor and having my own patients, I’d be able to inform people on their conditions and the science behind them.” 

She’s learned from the patients, too. “I do enjoy these calls,” she said.Some people are nice and they thank me for calling. Some want to have a conversation with you, and others have questions.” 

Meghan Marth, who is one of the graduate students supervising the undergraduates in the program, values the experience she is getting. 

“I’m studying social work and public health,” she said. “A lot of my experience and studies have been at the macro level of community population health. This has been a great experience in a client-facing, patient-facing role, and connecting people to this really important vaccine.”

Of the over 4,000 calls made recently to 2,500 patients, about 500 people are interested in getting the vaccine, and 40% have been scheduled. Harris said there are thousands more patients who are eligible whom volunteers could help to reach. Harris said they are aiming to expand the program.  

When the invitation to volunteer went out to the honor students, over 150 responded almost immediately. Harris said.

We know we can reach more patients,” Harris said.

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