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Balsam – A Service Oriented Learning Approach That’s Preparing KU’s Medical Graduates to Address the Unique Needs of the Communities They Serve

February 21, 2022

Khalifa University’s College of Medicine and Health Sciences aims to provide its students with the medical education that prepares them to become highly competent, culturally aware, and socially accountable physicians capable of improving the health of patients and communities. 


The Balsam Program was initiated to achieve this goal. Balsam, or Barnamij L-Ta‘leem Sehat al-Mujtama (برنامج لتعليم صحة المجتمع – بَلسمْ), is a community-based, household-focused, longitudinal service-learning program that incorporates attention to the social determinants of health through its education, health care, and research missions. 


Balsam is also an Arabic term that refers to a soothing or restorative effect and a tree species that yields a fragrant resinous substance, especially one used in medicine, i.e., the resinous substance yielded by a balm that helps to cure wounds and diseases. 


Balsam integrates social sciences, clinical experience, interprofessional teamwork, and attention to the social determinants of health to prepare socially accountable and culturally sensitive physicians. Balsam’s mission is accomplished by partnering with a network of community agencies to improve the health of households and communities. 


Currently, CMHS students embark on house visits to senior citizens’ home under the supervision of licensed healthcare professionals from Seha’s Ambulatory Healthcare Services team as part of a three-year longitudinal program. This experience does not only promote the professional development of students, enhance their medical knowledge and encourage inter-professional collaborations, but also deepens their understanding of the health systems and the social determinants of health linking those to interventions and policies which may improve the lives of this patient population. 


The Balsam program is young and has a lot of opportunities ahead. Partnering with governmental organizations that look after community development, this program hopes to expand in order to support KU’s social responsibility to the community it serves as well as provide its medical students with the competencies needed to address social determinants of health and offer culturally-sensitive human focused high standard medical care. 


Medical students participating in the Balsam program have expressed a deep appreciation for the opportunity to blend hands-on service-oriented learning with medical education.  


“To learn, we must do. Indeed, this is the essence of the Balsam program, our first real-world encounter with patients before our clinical years. Every few weeks, we had the privilege of accompanying homecare clinicians on visits to patient homes – an intimate first-hand experience we were incredibly lucky to be invited to. The program and faculty gave us a meaningful opportunity to move beyond the pathologies and physiologies into the real world. What at first I believed was primarily an opportunity to apply the principal skills of medicine we learned in class over the past year – history taking physical examinations – was in fact an eye-opening and humbling lesson on both the extent and limit of theoretical knowledge in patient care. After all is said and done, the true measure of a good and satisfying visit was always the ease the patient was left in and the reassurance felt by the family members. Ultimately, the most gratifying skills I built were learning how to connect with the patient, exercising empathy and lending a compassionate ear to the patient’s concerns. Altogether, both my academic and personal lives were enriched through this experience. 


The Balsam program was a space for critical reflection on community service in medicine. The privilege of accessing the most vulnerable moments of human life is a reminder of the pledge we take to serve through betterment – the onus is on us to continue enhancing the healthcare system not only as future physicians but also as change-makers. I walked away every time with an invigorated re-commitment to the work I hope to dedicate my life to.”Rham Abu Affan, 2nd year medical student


The Balsam program at Khalifa University provided us with the opportunity to serve the Abu Dhabi community with the skills that we are learning within the MD program. During our second year of medical school, we had four different Balsam visits to patients’ homes, and each visit was a very different and enlightening experience. We were part of a diverse medical team and had the chance to apply the knowledge learned in class into the real world and make a difference in people’s lives; this was both a privilege and an honor. However, what stuck with me the most during these visits was the connection I was able to form with the patients. Listening and attending to their concerns reminds me of why I have decided to enter this field – to help people, the community, and the country. Overall, I believe the Balsam program is an excellent and integral part of the MD curriculum at Khalifa University, as it allows us to serve the community and to develop the interpersonal skills that are vital for a successful doctor.” – Mohamed AlHashmi, 2nd year medical student


Erica Solomon
Senior Publication Specialist
21 February 2022