In the Middle

Innovative UCR program sees doctors serve as sex-ed teachers.

By Madeline Adamo

The resident physicians participating in UCR’s sexual education program with Palm Springs Unified School District. From left: Drs. Brian Petrie, Jessica Youk, Charles Penick, Teresa Khoo, Nelly Song, Kenneth Acha, Steven Nguyen, Jin Seon Kim-Paglingayen.

If the mere thought of sitting through sex-ed classes as a teenager makes you shift uncomfortably in your chair, you’re not alone.

UCR’s School of Medicine figured that one way to make the experience less anxiety-inducing would be to change the messenger. The idea came about thanks to the school’s work in the Coachella Valley, a region whose more than 400,000 residents are impacted by chronic disease at a higher rate than most Americans, according to a report by the Clinton Foundation. It’s also a place where many low-income families don’t have access to affordable and high-quality health care.

As part of a larger effort, the school has worked with the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Health Matters Initiative to improve health outcomes in the region. The initiative educates families on preventive health issues, uniting community members around a blueprint for improving the health and wellness of residents, and then helping to turn that plan into action. 
Perhaps the most obvious success of UCR’s efforts in the Coachella Valley has been doubling the number of family physicians in the region over the past three years, bringing the tally to 24 residents and seven family medicine faculty. That task, accomplished by the school’s Family Medicine Residency Program, was aided by the opening of the residency program’s 13,000-square-foot clinic at UCR’s Palm Springs Center in 2015.

The school’s attempts to improve sex education, however, represent a longer-term project whose successes are, as yet, not as easily measured.

UCR, together with the Palm Springs Unified School District and Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, pooled resources to address the growing rates of chlamydia and pregnancy among youth in the valley. They did so in a unique way: by bringing the program’s younger physicians into the district’s middle school classrooms to serve as mentors and teach kids about 
sexual health.

Beginning in 2015, the program’s doctors took over a series of sexual-education courses in the Palm Springs Unified School District, starting at one middle school and eventually spreading to four of five schools in the district. The innovative approach, designed to make the sex-ed experience as comfortable as possible, is now being considered by school districts across the 
Coachella Valley.

“The sexual education by itself isn’t anything different or something new and inventive,” said Dr. Gemma Kim, associate clinical professor and family medicine residency director at the UCR School of Medicine. “We thought that if resident physicians actually delivered this information, it would make a type of impact in the community,” she said, adding that program leaders also hoped it might make an impression on children thinking about a college education or a career in health care.

One of the program’s resident physician-instructors said he’s noticed definite interest and curiosity in the students, though he detected some apprehension at the outset.

“I couldn’t think of anything worse than being in a room with a bunch of 13-year-old boys talking about STDs and sex,” said Dr. Steven Nguyen, 32, a third-year resident who has spent plenty of time in Palm Springs classrooms since switching from surgery to the family medicine program to fulfill his passion for community-centered care. “But … after the first session they were asking such well-thought-out and intelligent questions. A lot of these kids would be the first in their family to go to college, so they’re asking about going to college, and how to become a doctor,” Nguyen added, noting he’s also a first-generation college graduate.

Kim and other program partners said having young residents present the information helps students relate to their instructors better, be more forthcoming with their questions, and be more truthful in discussions than if the information was delivered by a parent, guardian, or teacher.

While there isn’t much tabulated data about the effectiveness of the program, official data isn’t far behind, Kim said. County data runs about three years out, she explained, leaving a new program such as this one in the dark during its first few years.

That’s not to say students haven’t given feedback in the form of thank-you cards and letters.

“Thank you for showing me how the human body works,” wrote an eighth-grade student in a letter to residents. “I am also grateful for how you try to teach us in a way we would understand. Thank you!”

Planned Parenthood provided an evidence-based curriculum to residents covering contraception and STDs, sparing residents the two-to-three year process of instituting their own curriculum. That allowed the crew to hit the ground running, adding an anatomy and physiology course in the last year. 
“We definitely feel like we’ve made a footprint out here,” Kim said.

The Clinton Foundation posted a YouTube video in February in which President Bill Clinton thanked UCR and its partners for taking on such a big challenge and serving as a catalyst for improving health care in the Coachella Valley.

“All of you took bold steps toward improving the health of your communities in very creative ways, and in the process provided a blueprint for others to follow,” Clinton said.

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