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HLA House Project: Patient Education Efforts During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sept. 21, 2021

Students in the Health Leadership Apprentice Program, divided into “house” teams, work alongside Community-Driven Initiatives to help Central Texas community members address health-related issues. This post is by the 2020-2021 members of the Blue House: Ria Bhasin, Rachel Capao, Thomas Dang, Sharif Long, Noor Shenaq and Tuka Uzor.

The Volunteer Healthcare Clinic, or VHC, is the oldest continually running free clinic in Austin. Its mission is to improve the health of the uninsured, low-income, and working-class Austinites by providing high-quality health care and prevention education. Through its humble orange office, the VHC serves over 2,000 patients each year, for a total of 5,000 unique visits annually.

The VHC relies on its enthusiastic volunteers for patient translation services, clinic organization and more. Our undergraduate student team had the unique opportunity to continue a partnership with the VHC, started by two prior HLA teams: Green House (2018-2019) and Yellow House (2019-2020). And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

In-house patient visits were out the window. Through some very resourceful and heroic efforts on the part of VHC staff, the clinic was able to shift nearly all its services online through telehealth platforms, continuing to serve its patient population in new ways. Though our team was comprised of six very different individuals from all corners of the university, we were united by a shared interest in making healthcare more equitable and accessible through patient education methods. We took our diverse interests and applied them to our project.

As our patient education initiative took shape, we wanted to ensure we were being responsive to the patients’ needs. In this vein, we did what our professors recommend: We turned to the data. The VHC surveyed patients late 2020 and early 2021. Our team reviewed this data with the VHC, which helped provide context about their patients’ needs. For instance, during the pandemic, VHC’s patients weren’t able to visit the clinic in person, meaning the Monday-night presentations of the last two years couldn’t be used. Simultaneously, we realized that the pandemic put a spotlight on new health needs, such as maintaining one’s physical health while staying predominantly at home.

Conversation with VHC leaders helped us focus our patient education efforts on two areas: keeping physically healthy given the stay-at-home restrictions of the pandemic and educating our community on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and where to obtain one. Our team leveraged the VHC’s existing social media platforms, particularly YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, to create and share relevant and engaging content for VHC patients.

To accomplish our project, we divided our team based on skill sets. One group spearheaded video communications. With complicated and often contradictory local and national communications about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination opportunities, we sought to provide resources to communities in Austin who were misinformed or uninformed (due to geographic health discrimination). We created plans for two video series that our team would create, edit and post to the VHC’s existing YouTube channel. These videos included a “Workout with Me” vlog-style series in which several of our house members walked viewers through their regular workout routines in a low-stakes, easygoing fashion. The goal was to emphasize that physical health doesn’t have to be stressful or intimidating; rather, simple changes to one’s lifestyle, such as walking around more or taking the stairs, can really help one’s health. The second video series was about the COVID-19 vaccination process, including the differences between the three vaccines, how the vaccines work (with an emphasis on the safety aspects), how to sign up for vaccines and vaccination locations.

Next, we organized Instagram and Facebook posts to correspond with our video plans. We created a six-panel Instagram and Facebook post shedding light on ways VHC patients can keep physically healthy while at home and without expensive gym equipment. One suggestion was to use detergent bottles or bags of rice as weights and milk jugs as dumbbells. We also created social media posts about the COVID-19 vaccination process, with step-by-step instructions on how Austin-area individuals can obtain a vaccine. On the last panel of this post, we included links to two official health resources pertaining to the pandemic.

Considering our diverse backgrounds and how we started from scratch, we are thrilled about our project accomplishments. Our team’s diversity proved vital to the success of our project. Ria’s studies in public health, for instance, complemented Thomas’ interests in digital communications, and the resulting social media posts were of better quality due to the incorporation of both perspectives. With the VHC being entirely volunteer-operated, we are reviewing how these education efforts may be continued in the long term. We hope to identify a student organization on the UT Austin campus with aligned interests that can keep the partnership ongoing. We are also planning to document information learned and develop a set of protocols and suggestions that future social media volunteers at VHC can easily follow.

Being new to the Austin area, we are grateful for our experience with the VHC, which allowed us to make a difference for our community during such a unique and difficult time. Our project has further strengthened the HLA-VHC relationship and left groundwork for others to continue for an even wider impact. Special thanks to Silvia Núñez and Laura Hurst — our mentors at the VHC — for being responsive to our inquiries, supportive of our efforts and receptive to our ideas. We’re also thankful for the previous Yellow House’s support with partnership transition and guidance of the HLA leadership team, including Nitakuwa Barrett, MSN, RN, Heidi Eisaman, MBA, and Steve Steffensen, M.D.