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Operation House Call

Operation House Call
Photo by Nicole Goodhue Boyd/ Medford Transcipt

The Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress and The Arc of Massachusetts are pleased to announce the launch of a recent collaboration on Operation House Call, a unique program that for the past two decades has taught disability awareness to medical students throughout the Commonwealth.

Under OHC, a parent of a child with special needs informs students about best practices and sensitivities when caring for a patient with an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD). Then, through clinical instruction, the students meet a person with I/DD and their family in a non-acute care setting. In addition, medical students go in pairs for a 2-hour home visit, where a host family opens their home and shares their personal story.

The partnership will enable Operation House Call to strengthen its program. Through its health care research in 2008, The Arc found that many adults with I/DD in Massachusetts remain with their pediatricians. OHC is crucial because it sets the foundation for health clinicians to feel comfortable providing care for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

Started at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) in 1991, OHC was developed because families served by The Greater Boston Arc realized that their loved ones with I/DD were being treated differently. It became clear that many doctors did not know how to effectively communicate and work with children with special needs. These families, along with Dr. David Coulter and Dr. Benjamin Siegel, rallied together to shape a curriculum for medical students.

Central to this program is the idea that families are the best teachers for health professional students. Significant learning is done in the family home, which is important as a foundation for work in the clinic and acute care environments where the advantages of comfort and time are in short supply.  

Over the past 21 years, OHC has been instrumental in increasing students’ confidence, sensitivity, and interest in children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Today, OHC is run independently by The Arc of Massachusetts. Boston University’s School of Medicine also helps to fund OHC.

Matthew Cullen at BU

Bigger and Better
This new collaboration between The Arc of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress constitutes an expansion of the existing program. Two new schools have signed on to teach Operation House Call to their graduate-level healthcare students this academic year: Tufts School of Medicine and Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences. The more health professional students who complete the OHC course, the better the care will be for people with disabilities.

How It Works
Medical students in OHC are prepped through clinical instruction by a parent or a child with an intellectual or developmental disability (I/DD). The parent instructor expands the students' perspectives and gets them ready to meet and learn from families outside of health care settings. Students learn about "People First" language, community resources, monitoriing their own personal bias, delivering difficult news, sibling needs, and building rapport.

Students are then provided an opportunity to apply this classroom instruction in a real-world setting - a 2-hour home visit. During the visit, students get to know an individual with I/DD personally. They may eat dinner with the family, play board games or video games and get a sense of what daily life is like for someone with a disability. 

MDSC’s involvement
Operation House Call fits perfectly with the MDSC’s priorities, specifically the MDSC’s signature Parents First Call program. For years, Parents First Call has partnered with maternity hospitals throughout the state to deliver accessible, up-to-date health information to new parents and medical care providers.

From experience, we know that ensuring that people with Down syndrome and other disabilities have access to high quality medical services often starts by educating medical students. Now, OHC allows us another vehicle to do this.

This new collaboration allows the MDSC to reach more health professional students, continuing to build our strong relationships with medical providers while giving our families and self-advocates an opportunity to personally be involved in the program.

To learn more about Operation House Call contact Sarah Cullen at or visit The Arc's OHC page.