Student-led RISE program helps reduce patient isolation, loneliness

When the COVID-19 arrived in Canada, undergraduate learners whose classes were disrupted mobilized quickly to help healthcare providers and public health offices with childcare, contact tracing, and other important supports. Jasmine Waslowski and Mary Freymond, co-chairs of the Student Committee of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada (SRPC) at the time, asked rural physician members of the SRPC how medical students could provide support to rural Canada during the pandemic. The answer? Reach out to rural patients and alleviate their social isolation during the pandemic by offering emotional support and companionship through weekly phone calls.  

This idea quickly blossomed into the Rural and Isolated Support Endeavour (RISE). The service allows rural healthcare providers (physicians, nurse practitioners, etc.) to refer their patients to RISE via email ( or referral form. Once submitted, the Volunteer Communication and Matching Lead will connect a medical student volunteer with the patient.  

RCCbc spoke with medical student volunteers leading the RISE project to learn more about the service. The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity. 

RCCbc:  Medical students across the country mobilized quickly to help out. [The SRPC Student Committee chose to provide mental health supports for rural patients] – why is this area of focus important?  

RISE Volunteers: Rural community members face unique challenges because of their living arrangements, geographical location, and lack of access to services. These challenges are amplified by COVID-19. Forinstance, many rural residents are visited by family and friends from out of town and rely on neighbours for socialization – physical distancing and bans on non-essential travel makes this very difficult. Elderly rural residents, who are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, have a high risk for becoming isolated.  

In rural communities, mental health support services, medical care, and other social programming is far less accessible than in urban areas. During the pandemic, accessing services can be much harder, resulting in unmet needs. For example, people dealing with domestic violence may be unable to access social support while at home with their abuser, increasing the chance of violence. Lower income residents may be unable to afford high speed internet or may not even have internet at all, which prevents them from videoconferencing with healthcare providers, friends and families, further adding to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Wildfire season is also upon us, so rural communities will be dealing with the compounding worries of wildfire destruction and the pandemic.   

Indigenous peoples across Canada face these issues along with other specific challenges amplified by this pandemic. Many reserves are over-crowded, with insufficient housing, poor access to clean drinking water, higher rates of chronic disease, and underfunded healthcare services. COVID-19’s presence on reserves impacts residents differently.  

How many of your members are involved in this initiative? Will each student support providers in their province only or will they be available for cross country support as needed?  

When the SRPC reached out to gauge volunteer interest for RISE, over 100 medical students signed up within a week! Most of the volunteers provide weekly phone calls to clients, while a group of six (6) volunteers are promoting RISE across the country. This program is led by three medical students, one of whom is now a medical resident: Ella Chochla (NOSM), Anchaleena Mandal (Queen’s University) and Deanna Funk (University of Alberta).  

When a patient is referred, we try to match them to a volunteer in the same province, and preferably the same region. If that is not available, medical students can provide cross country support.  

How will you be delivering these support services, and what kind of reporting back will you provide for rural providers using your service?  

We deliver our support services by phone or videoconferencing – whatever the client prefers.  

We have all the referring health care practitioners’ contact information should any medical concern arise that the volunteers are unable to deal with. So far, we have had great feedback from the referring providers. 

When classes resume, how will the group manage the continuation of this service?    

RISE will be recruiting additional executive members to assist with some of the daily tasks. With so many volunteers, we don’t foresee this being an issue! 

If you would like to refer your patient to RISE, email the group or fill out a referral form and submit it to the volunteers. There are additional resources available for you to distribute to your patients below: 

RISE resource links: