August 08, 2018 | Downers Grove, IL
Poverty creates barriers to many health services and can contribute to overall poor health for the more than 43 million Americans who live below the poverty line. To gain a greater understanding of what it's like to live in poverty, the new class of students at the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (CCOM) participated in a poverty simulation. The activity was organized by the Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA) chapter on the Downers Grove Campus as part of the new student orientation week. The simulation was developed by the Missouri Association for Community Action, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing poverty.
As part of the simulation, CCOM students were assigned the roles of 26 different families facing poverty. Some of the families were experiencing unemployment, some had recently lost their income provider, some were homeless, and others were senior citizens receiving disability benefits or grandparents raising their grandchildren. The task was to make ends meet on extremely limited resources during the course of a simulated month. During the role-play, the students had to pay their rent, utilities, and grocery bills; keep a job; get their children to school; avoid going to jail; and use community resources and services to benefit their family.
"We are intentionally calling this a simulation and not a game because poverty is not a game for the millions of Americans who deal with it every year," said Colin Wruck (CCOM 2021), SOMA Health Disparities Director, in his description of the simulation to the new students. "Being a doctor is not just about diagnosing diseases or prescribing medication. It's also about building empathy for patients and understanding that they are complex individuals whose health and wellbeing are affected regularly by their environment and the people around them," he added.
In addition to the role of family members, other students acted as community partners including bankers, social workers, rent collectors, police officers, teachers, and community health doctors. "I'm playing a receptionist at social services and, from my perspective, I see how hectic things can be, how quickly lines can build up, and how easily people can start getting impatient," said Sarah El Mouatassim Bih (CCOM 2022). "I think it will make me more cognizant of even some of the small struggles that patients might be going through."
At the conclusion of the simulation, SOMA members led the new students through a debriefing period to discuss their experiences. "I think the simulation did a good job of giving us an example of how stressful people's lives can be," said Alyssa Anton (CCOM 2022). "We had someone in our family who had a stroke; we had a child going to school; we had all these different things to think about on top of paying bills. This program did a good job showing how unpredictable life is and that you can't plan for it, you can't budget for it, and it's even more stressful when you are just getting by," she added.
This was the first year that new CCOM students participated in a poverty simulation. As part of their orientation, the students also spent a day volunteering at local community organizations as a means to gain greater empathy and understanding about the community they will serve as future health professionals.