Extending the Population Health Workforce Through Service Learning Internships During COVID: A Community Case Study

Front Public Health. 2021 Jun 21:9:697515. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2021.697515. eCollection 2021.


This report arises from the intersection of service learning and population health at an academic medical center. At the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the Office of Population Health and Accountable Care (OPHAC) employs health care navigators to help patients access and benefit from high-value care. In early 2020, facing COVID-19, UCSF leaders asked OPHAC to help patients and employees navigate testing, treatment, tracing, and returning to work protocols. OPHAC established a COVID hotline to route callers to the appropriate resources, but needed to increase the capacity of the navigator workforce. To address this need, OPHAC turned to UCSF's service learning program for undergraduates, the Patient Support Corps (PSC). In this program, UC Berkeley undergraduates earn academic credit in exchange for serving as unpaid patient navigators. In July 2020, OPHAC provided administrative funding for the PSC to recruit and deploy students as COVID hotline navigators. In September 2020, the PSC deployed 20 students collectively representing 2.0 full-time equivalent navigators. After training and observation, and with supervision and escalation pathways, students were able to fill half-day shifts and perform near the level of staff navigators. Key facilitators relevant to success reflected both PSC and OPHAC strengths. The PSC onboards student interns as institutional affiliates, giving them access to key information technology systems, and trains them in privacy and other regulatory requirements so they can work directly with patients. OPHAC strengths included a learning health systems culture that fosters peer mentoring and collaboration. A key challenge was that, even after training, students required around 10 h of supervised practice before being able to take calls independently. As a result, students rolled on to the hotline in waves rather than all at once. Post-COVID, OPHAC is planning to use student navigators for outreach. Meanwhile, the PSC is collaborating with pipeline programs in hopes of offering this internship experience to more students from backgrounds that are under-represented in healthcare. Other campuses in the University of California system are interested in replicating this program. Adopters see the opportunity to increase capacity and diversity while developing the next generation of health and allied health professionals.

Keywords: COVID-19; internship; navigation; population health; service learning; telehealth; undergraduate; workforce innovation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Population Health*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • San Francisco
  • Workforce