UW Sends Future Health Care Professionals Into A Homeless Camp

Mar 14, 2017

Treating homeless people takes special training, but it's not something doctors, nurses, and other health care providers typically learn in school.

That's according to Lois Thetford, a physician's assistant with decades of experience working with the homeless. 

Thetford, a founder of Seattle's Neighborhood Health at 45th Street clinic, is working to give future health care professionals some of that same experience. She recently wrapped up her first quarter teaching a new class on homelessness at the University of Washington.

The course is open to students in a range of health-related disciplines. Katelyn McKenna is studying speech and language therapy. 

"It's a population that, even though you don't think about it, you're likely to come upon at some point while you're working," she said of the homeless. 

The students do outreach work in Tent City 3, a community of homeless people that the university is hosting for 90 days this winter. They enter the camp in small groups, handing out supplies like baby wipes, socks, and Kleenex. 

On a February evening, a group of students passed by Jonathan Blanchard, a resident of the camp who was on crutches. He said a University of Washington medical team put a cast on his broken ankle that day.

Blanchard said he doesn't like doctors, but this medical team earned his trust.

“They didn’t care what race, creed, color, what I believed in. They didn’t care [about] anything. All they wanted to do was fix my ankle," he said. "I just believed that they would take care of me, to be honest.”

Thetford said the outreach work teaches students how to interact with people with life experiences vastly different from theirs — people who might be suspicious, or even afraid.

“I want them to have real people as their images," she said. "I mean, I can tell a hundred stories. But I think that it’s really important for them to actually engage in a direct person-to-person thing.”

She said it's important for students to understand the roots of a homeless patient's distrust. 

“It has to do with understanding trauma-informed care and that the person is traumatized," Thetford said. "And that you can make that better, or you can make it worse.”

She said many health care providers simply never learned how to make that better. But, she added, more and more of them are saying they want to learn.