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Students fill need in health care community

Freshman Jacob Fuchs wants to someday be a surgeon, following in the footsteps of his uncle. However, instead of focusing solely on surgeries, the UW-Eau Claire pre-medicine and kinesiology student is learning to take a holistic approach to patient care.  

"A holistic approach is important to me because when I become an administrant of health care I want to do more than just fix patients' illnesses; I want to prevent them," said Fuchs, Hager City. "It is much more important to prevent illnesses before they become so urgent that intervention is required. I believe it is a health care professional's job to work with patients to help prevent illnesses, which is exactly what will happen if the roots of issues are exposed and treated." 

Thanks to an innovative Marshfield Clinic-campus partnership, Fuchs already is getting a real-world look at what a holistic approach to patient care might look like. He's learning how to interact with patients and connect them with resources and services that treat underlying social needs that can often limit patients' access to resources for healthy living through his involvement with the Community Connections Team led by Family Health Center, Inc., Marshfield Clinic providers and UW-Eau Claire faculty.

In recent years, the medical profession has started looking beyond traditional approaches to health care to address patients' underlying social needs. UW-Eau Claire has partnered with the Family Health Center, Inc. and Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire to help expand those efforts.  

"The Community Connections Team is a good example of Marshfield Clinic's dedication to caring for patients' total health care needs that in many situations goes beyond the physician office and addresses patients' social needs," said Dr. William Barkley, Marshfield Clinic district medical director. 

The state of Wisconsin's Healthiest Wisconsin 2020 report states that 10 percent of health outcomes are driven by medical care while the remaining 90 percent are impacted primarily by social, behavioral, environmental and other factors. 

"Evidence from the research shows socio-economic factors impact overall health," said Greg Nycz, director of the Family Health Center of Marshfield, Inc. "To improve the health of the community, a key element of our mission is to find ways to partner with educational institutions like UW-Eau Claire to bridge the medical and economic determinants of health. Service-learning opportunities, such as the Community Connections project, provide students with a much broader experience than traditional health care, and our hope is to recruit more students into the health care field. We're excited about providing an opportunity to test different strategies to improve the health of our patients and communities."

The Community Connections project stemmed from a civic engagement University Honors Program course created by Dr. Ruth Cronje, professor of English and Honors Program faculty fellow at UW-Eau Claire. The interdisciplinary program is supported on campus by the Health Careers Center, Institute for Health Sciences, University Honors Program, and the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Human Sciences, and Nursing and Health Sciences to address the health care needs of low-income residents of the Chippewa Valley.

Students and community members volunteering with the program as community health workers provide patients in need with resources to address issues related to food assistance, shelter, transportation, childcare or any other area deemed necessary. They locate resources utilizing Great Rivers 211 and share them with patients to get the help needed. Community health workers complete a comprehensive training and are required to volunteer 3-4 hours per week. 

The students have become very passionate and understanding about the needs of low-income people and their access to health care, Cronje said. 

"The project gives students direct contact with patients to help meet their needs and improve health outcomes," Cronje said. "The patient rapport piece is something undergraduates don't normally get to experience. This allows students to see how social, economic and environmental factors can impinge on patient health. Some unfortunately will have very tragic stories. This will be a very vivid education for students in parts of health care that aren't normally thought of as health care."

Positively affecting patient health is the most rewarding aspect of the project, and there is no greater feeling than actually making a difference in the lives of people in the Eau Claire community, Fuchs said.

"This program is not only a great way to become positively involved in the community, but also is a great way to get informed about how prevalent poverty is in our community," Fuchs said. "One day I hope we can become a nation that helps those in need so we don't have inequalities in health care."  

The Community Connections Team not only helps teach students about health care and the disparities that exist, but also provides a great benefit to members of the Eau Claire community.

"As a UW-Eau Claire graduate now working for Marshfield Clinic, I am thrilled to be working in collaboration on this initiative that will enrich student and volunteer lives while enhancing our patients' health and our community resources," said Miriam Gehler, administrator for Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Center. "We are a community that inspires." 

"We are excited to work with the Community Connections Team so we can start to get patients connected with existing community agencies to help them obtain the resources and support they need to thrive," said Dr. Julia Kyle, department chair of Med-Peds at Marshfield Clinic Eau Claire Center.

For more information about the Community Connections Team, contact Dr. Ruth Cronje, UW-Eau Claire professor of English and Honors Program faculty fellow, at or 715-836-5384;or Tim Bauer, Marshfield Clinic, at or 715-858-4467. For Marshfield Clinic media inquiries, contact Jake Miller at 715-387-5762 or  

Photo caption: From left: UW-Eau Claire students Kali Boldt, Mark Priebe, Cynthia Koenigsberg, Anna Hamer and Deborah Thompson prepare for Community Connections team training at Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire.