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Helping people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19

A medical student and dermatologist create skin care kits to make hygiene items and self care more accessible for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Haya's story

Haya Raef, Tufts University Medical Student
Haya Raef, Tufts University Medical Student
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold in the United States, I joined dermatologist Jennifer Tan, MD, FAAD, at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) for a rotation to learn about treating vulnerable populations as part of my medical school education. Almost immediately, as governors began to issue stay-at-home guidances, it was apparent that people experiencing homelessness would face unique and difficult challenges during the pandemic, including lack of access to over-the-counter treatments and needed hygienic supplies.

Dr. Tan and I decided to work with local non-profit organizations and businesses to make self-care and hygiene items more accessible to individuals experiencing homelessness. Prior to COVID-19, Dr. Tan, along with Harvard dermatology resident, Dr. Neera Nathan, and Harvard medical student, Samantha Guhan, created diagnosis-specific skin care kits for common skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and dry skin. Through the support of corporate and individual donors as well as staff and medical school volunteers, we shifted our focus to assembling more than 900 COVID-19 care kits for patients in Boston and Portland, Maine. In addition to skin care and hygiene supplies, the kits often come with puzzles or notes that can really brighten someone’s day.

Though my medical school cohort and I have been temporarily pulled out of the clinical setting, it’s been important for us to find other ways to contribute to people’s health and well-being during this pandemic. In addition to our kits for homeless individuals, Dr. Tan and I have assembled skin care kits that include over-the-counter treatments and a skin care pamphlet for frontline health care workers at BHCHP, many of whom have developed irritant reactions from the personal protective equipment required to safely treat COVID-19 patients. These kits have been a valuable way to collectively share a volunteer experience and contribute to our fellow health care workers.

The dermatologist's perspective

Jennifer Tan, MD

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced how fortunate I am to have an abundance of basic human needs such as health care, food, shelter, safety, and love. At times like this, we need to take care of each other and our neighbors who are the most vulnerable in whatever way we can. I deeply appreciate the efforts of health care providers who are working on the front lines, including my dermatology colleagues who have been redeployed to frontline response efforts. The kits just seemed like the right thing to do during this time.

I recently had a follow-up virtual visit with a patient who mentioned that the kit was incredibly helpful to her. Not only did it provide needed dermatologic supplies, it also reminded her that she wasn’t alone and that others were concerned about her well-being. Her kit included a handwritten ‘get well soon’ note, which she said touched her heart and helped with her healing process.

I am grateful for Haya’s innovative work, as well as the time that she, other trainees, and faculty have spent collecting supplies and assembling kits over the past year. We’ve found that the availability of and need for these products may be a unique point of health care engagement for our patients. It is deeply meaningful to see the future generation of dermatologists prioritizing the care of underserved communities. Efforts such as this are a great example of the contributions that dermatologists can make to address broader public health problems such as homelessness. ”

─ Jennifer Tan, MD, FAAD, Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Pediatric Dermatologist

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