UW School of Medicine program nurtures skills that help LGBTQ community and others open up and get better health care

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It might have been Alec Gibson’s gentle drawl that did it. He and his patient — another transplanted Southerner — started chatting. They developed a rapport.

While this may sound like a standard doctor-patient interaction, it isn’t. Gibson is an M.D.-Ph.D. student who volunteers at the Aloha Inn, a transitional housing site for homeless men and women in Seattle. His patient, a member of the LGBTQ community living at the inn, was known to be reticent about their medical history. But after getting to know Gibson, the patient opened up.

“The patient revealed things about their health care that they never revealed before,” says Gibson. It was an interaction that reinforced Gibson’s feeling about the UW School of Medicine: that it was the right place for him to be.

“The program is one of the best in the country,” Gibson says.

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The best of both worlds

Gibson is a student in the Medical Scientist Training Program. At the end of eight years, MSTP participants possess both an M.D. and a Ph.D., and they’re prepared to ask — and answer — some of the most challenging questions in medicine.

“I couldn’t decide which I liked more: caring for patients or doing research,” Gibson says. The MSTP — two years of medical school, four years in a lab, two more years of medical school — will allow him to do both. Today, Gibson is in the second year of his Ph.D. program, and he’s conducting research on the role serotonin plays in addiction and stress in the lab of John Neumaier, M.D., Ph.D.

“I like the idea of using my medical knowledge to drive research,” says Gibson. “I like that dynamic of growth and exploration.”

Giving back during school

If Gibson is committed to his education, he’s also committed to working with underserved populations. It’s a trait that he shares with other UW School of Medicine students, who run multiple volunteer programs in the five-state region of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. These “service learning” programs allow students to provide basic medical care while physicians and other personnel stand by to supervise and make referrals for more in-depth care.

Gibson and his fiancé, Ted Gobillot, manage the clinic at the Aloha Inn. And they and a third student have accomplished even more: the creation of the LGBTQ Pathway at the UW School of Medicine. Pathways allow students to explore specialized branches of medicine, and this new pathway will join existing ones in in Hispanic and Indian health, care for the underserved (including racial and ethnic groups), and global health.

This effort was inspired, in part, by Gibson’s childhood. “Growing up gay in South Carolina was very difficult,” he says. Like his homeless patient at the Aloha, Gibson found it hard to let down his guard. “I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing to my health care providers,” says Gibson.

With the new pathway, Gibson and his colleagues hope to make doctors comfortable in treating the LGBTQ community, a lasting change that will affect the well-being of people throughout our entire region.

Accelerate education

Students like Gibson — smart, compassionate, driven — are the future of medical care and research in our communities. UW Medicine and the University of Washington are committed to helping them reach their potential, and part of that commitment is financial: working with donors to provide scholarship and fellowship packages that support a superb education.

Gibson, for instance, received a Turner Society Endowed Fellowship during M.D. training, and he’s now benefiting from an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) Fellowship. These funds help relieve the burden imposed by the everyday costs of living and concerns about post-graduate debt.

“With this support, I’m less worried about money and finances,” says Gibson. “I can focus more on research, volunteering and education.”

Becoming better

Though school is only likely to become busier as time goes on, Gibson plans to continue volunteering. He’s learning from it: organizational skills, hands-on medical practice and, maybe most important, how to be a good listener— how to really be present with every one of his patients.

“I’m learning the medicine,” he says, “and how to be a better human being.”

Learn about the Campaign for UW Medicine at AccelerateMed.org.