Student Polyclinic: 10 years and counting

On June 3, Goethe University Frankfurt’s Student Polyclinic, part of the Frankfurt Health Department, marked its tenth anniversary. Among the multiple benefits and services offered by the clinic are consultation hours for people without health insurance, which the students carry out under the supervision of experienced doctors.  

Arbeiten gemeinsam in der Studentischen Poliklinik: Marius Moniak (von links), Celina Steinwald, Antonia Kerner, Dr. Petra Tiarks-Jungk, Rebekka Roberts, Ramona Brinkmann und Felix Luft. (Foto: Gesundheitsamt Frankfurt)

As a student, he would have enjoyed this elective subject, says Prof. Robert Sader. “During my studies, some 40 years ago, medical teaching was extremely theoretical.  The first and only time we came into any real contact with patients was in the practical year,” recalls the director of Goethe University’s Center for Dentistry, Oral and Maxillofacial Medicine on the occasion of the polyclinic’s 10-year anniversary. The idea to involve the Faculty of Medicine in the care of those in need goes back to Frankfurt anatomist Prof. Helmut Wicht. Then dean of studies, Sader adopted the idea and further developed it together with students. Having successfully overcome a number of hurdles – also thanks to the help of the Frankfurt Health Department – the Student Polyclinic opened its doors on June 17, 2014; at the time, it was the first service of its kind in Germany. Since then, countless patients have been treated here. Students are also greatly interested in the initiative, which received the Hessian University Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 2017, endowed with 60,000 euros.

To Elke Voitl, Frankfurt municipality’s head of social affairs and health, the initiative is part of a tradition that dates back to famous Frankfurt doctor and founder Johann Christian Senckenberg. “Until today, anyone without health insurance in Germany is only entitled to medical help in absolutely acute emergencies. That is a problem. We urgently need free basic healthcare for every member of our society. Health is an essential prerequisite for being part of a society, it is the basis for a good life. Making this basic service available to all also strengthens the community. Otherwise, divisions will continue to grow and social upheaval and tensions will increase inexorably,” Voitl cautions. Referring to the clinic by its nickname, she continues: “StuPoli provides a key impetus here, not least since it perfectly complements the humanitarian consultation hour offered by our municipal health department. The fact that both services have grown over the years and demand remains great confirms our political approach and shows that we are on the right track,” she adds.

“Goethe University’s Executive Board warmly congratulates the Student Polyclinic on its tenth anniversary. StuPoli is a particularly good example of how science can deliver a direct contribution to society – something we as a university have always had in our DNA. The service benefits our fellow Frankfurt residents in need, while the students involved in StuPoli gain not only practical know-how, but – perhaps even more importantly – experience a sense of great purpose. We are proud of this all-round successful project,” says Prof. Viera Pirker, Goethe University Vice President Studies and Teaching.

“Contact with patients with no fixed abode and no health insurance, whose problems are not at the focus of German society, constitutes a professional challenge for our aspiring medical doctors. This experience encourages them to reflect on their own role, behavior and commitment. Compared to their regular studies, these young people gain an entirely new perspective on their future work, significantly expanding their experience and communication skills,” explains Prof. Miriam Rüsseler, dean of studies at the Faculty of Medicine.

“The wide range of experiences they are exposed to at the clinic enriches the doctors’ work,” says Dr. Peter Tinnemann, head of Frankfurt’s Health Department. “The fact that students already gain many different practical experiences during their medical studies is a benefit for the people of Frankfurt, for the patients and, of course, for the students. Thank you very much for ten years of StuPoli – a truly remarkable project.”

Recalling the clinic’s planning phase, Dr. Dr. Lukas Seifert, one of its student initiators, says nothing comparable existed in Europe at the time, adding that American student-run free clinics served as a model. To learn more about the process and the organizational model, a student delegation traveled to Harvard, among other places, he says, adding that based on this information and as part of a doctoral thesis, he then developed the concept for the elective course module in Frankfurt. There were two major obstacles in particular that stood in the way of implementing StuPoli, Prof. Sader explains. The first one, linked to insurance law, was solved by accrediting the health department as an academic teaching institution of the university, developing the clinical elective course around StuPoli, and implementing it as part of the degree. The health department also proved essential to solving the second problem, related to finding suitable premises, by helping out provisionally with rooms. This temporary solution meanwhile has become a permanent one, proving its worth.

Dr. Petra Tiarks-Jungk has served as a StuPoli medical supervisor from the very beginning. She ran the humanitarian consultation hour and gave the first cohort of StuPoli students the opportunity to work there. Her initial skepticism about the quality of the students’ medical knowledge quickly evaporated, she says, adding that she was “absolutely overwhelmed” by their commitment and expertise. That is why she was happy to support StuPoli as a medical supervisor, and continues to do so today, even after retirement.

The students do not meet patients unprepared, and are only allowed to commence practical work at StuPoli after completing one semester and passing a medical examination course as well as case seminars; and even then they are always accompanied by a “senior” and work under medical supervision. The Student Polyclinic’s consultation hours are Tuesdays from 5 to 7 pm and Wednesdays from 6 to 8 pm. Two teams of two students – one junior and one senior – examine the patients, take a medical history, draw blood samples or perform an ultrasound. While they often deal with acute ailments, they also encounter chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Sader reports that quite a few StuPoli volunteers later decide to work in a GP practice. “My work in StuPoli has strengthened my interest in general practice,” confirms medical student Petra Sporerova from the current StuPoli team. “It’s very rewarding to be able to help patients, their gratitude knows no bounds.”

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