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A Walk in My Shoes

Playing the role of a 46-year-old African American woman with a lump in her breast was a trying experience for Ireal Johnson, a first-year medical student at the GW Medical Center, who found herself shuffled between examination rooms and specialists during the  third annual “A Walk in my Shoes” simulation, September 14. 

“It was really tough because I had to wait at least six weeks to find out if it was cancer or not,” she said. “Not only that, but my daughter sprained her ankle and needed to go the ER because we were uninsured. It was just chaos.”

The activity, which served as the kickoff event for GW’s Interdisciplinary Student Community-Oriented Prevention Enhancement Service (ISCOPES) program, allowed students to experience navigating the health care system from the perspective of a marginalized community member. By adopting an assigned identity that included race/ethnicity, age, occupational status, health issues, language, immigration status, and family situation, the students tried to obtain health care by traveling to various booths representing government offices, hospitals, clinics, work, and other community sites.

“When my family finally got appointments, everyone who had insurance got to go in front of us,” lamented Jeannette Green, a first-year medical student who was assigned to the role of a 39-year-old uninsured Hispanic male. “It was frustrating. I know it was a simulation, but I still felt angry.”

Such feelings are precisely the point of the exercise, said Angie Hinzey, M.P.H., director of ISCOPES. “It takes the students out of a sympathy role and puts them into an empathy role,” she explained. “Before we ask them to go out and to work with real partners in real situations with real challenges, we put them through this simulation, which is a poignant way of bringing a lot of issues to light in a very short period of time.”

This year marks the 15th anniversary of ISCOPES, whose approximately 160 members include students from GW’s School ofMedicine and Health Sciences and School of Public Health and Health Services, and George Mason University’s School ofNursing. The program places students into interdisciplinary teams that work with a community partner organization to target barriers and improve access to care. Through guidance from both a community advisor and a university advisor, the teams facilitate projects that promote health in underserved areas in the District.

“The whole point of ISCOPES is not to fix something or to just help somebody — it’s to serve,” said Hinzey. “And to serve, you have to be able empathize. You have to be able to walk in someone else’s shoes”

Hinzey’s post as ISCOPES’ director follows the three-year direction of Emily Morrison, who is credited with the program’s tremendous growth as its inaugural director. Morrison is now director of the Human Services program in the Department of Sociology in GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

In the year ahead, Hinzey, who earned her M.P.H. from GW in 2008, plans to involve faculty and alumni in the creation of a strategic plan. Eventually, she hopes that the program can be better integrated into University curricula, fulfilling service-learning requirements across many disciplines. “ISCOPES lends itself to the changing face of health care. It’s no longer about people providing care in silos and only talking to each other when they must, it’s more of a patient-centered, team approach to medicine,” she said. “This program really helps students appreciate that before they go out into the real world.”