Medical School Life

How a medical student leader addressed health’s social drivers

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

AMA News Wire

How a medical student leader addressed health’s social drivers

Nov 13, 2023

As a second-year medical student at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine (UConn), Henry Siccardi, MD, had an itch.

He wanted to make a positive impact on patients’ health but had yet to advance to the stage of his training that allowed him to work in the clinical setting. To scratch that itch, Dr. Siccardi got proactive.

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 Henry Siccardi, MD
Henry Siccardi, MD, spoke about his medical student leadership at the AMA ChangeMedEd 2023 conference in Chicago.

Along with a classmate, Dr. Siccardi—now an internal medicine PGY-1 at UConn Health—co-founded the University of Connecticut Health Leaders. The program filled a need, which is that hospitals often lack the bandwidth to do a comprehensive screening for the social determinants of health. Through the program, medical students and a group volunteers—trained by the students running the program—could fill that gap.

The work, which began weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ended up having a major effect on patients who participated in the program. Thousands of patients were screened for social determinants of health and connected with resources to help address them.

For co-founding University of Connecticut Health Leaders, Dr. Siccardi—who presented on the program during the AMA ChangeMedEd® 2023 conference in Chicago—earned second place in the 2021 AMA Student Impact Challenge. In reflecting on the role his leadership played in the UConn program’s success, Dr. Siccardi offered a few tips for medical students on how they can be effective leaders among peers and patients.

Leaders can’t go it alone. Before he launched the health leadership program in 2020, Dr. Siccardi spoke to numerous stakeholders—other medical students, physicians, patients and public health professionals—about needs that existed in the community and how they were working to address them. 

“When you think you've identified a problem, you need to identify the stakeholders involved in that problem and trying to address it,” he said. “Those are the people you need to talk to first. Be prepared to do more listening than talking. That’s how you fully understand a situation.

“Take that input you get from stakeholders and apply it to your solution, then when you're going to design something that's meant to address that issue, of those stakeholders wants to come on board.”

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Medical student sitting on a stack of textbooks

Passion is great, and Dr. Siccardi said it drove his award-winning effort at UConn.

“Anybody who's interested in going into something that can solve a problem and create change needs to ask themselves: Why?” he said. “What makes me wake up every day and say I'm going to continue at this, even when it's not going my way? Having a good idea is easy, but putting it into practice is a lot more challenging. Along the way, people tell you no. People tell you that they don't want to do it the way you want to do it. You need to be able to have resilience through that.”

Leaders need to embrace uncertainty and change because of it. Dr. Siccardi’s UConn program was going for less than a month before the pandemic took root. Because of that, the program’s leadership had to pivot from an in-person screening process to one that was done over the phone.

“Adaptability is an absolutely necessary quality for anybody who wants to be in leadership,” he said. “The very nature of leadership means that you are guiding people through uncertainty.

“When you are in a leadership position, things are going to pop up that you weren’t expecting. Sometimes the world is going to shut down from a pandemic. Sometimes you're not going to have funding. You have to be able to navigate those problems as a leader.”

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There’s a reason leading by example is a common cliché: It works.

“In the military, they say the officers should be the last to eat,” Dr. Siccardi noted. That’s what it means to lead by example. So my leadership team, I hope they see that I’m working as hard as anyone. It's not because I want to be celebrated for it. It’s because if they see me working hard on it, they will feel empowered to work hard on it.”