A new discipline of learning

Students in health care disciplines have long been accustomed to taking all of their professional classes only with their own kind, be it nursing, medicine or pharmacy.

That silo approach to health care education was the norm for decades, but it’s rapidly giving way to interprofessional education (IPE), which draws students from multiple health care fields into one classroom for a common course experience. The University of South Carolina is taking IPE a step further by including not only traditional disciplines — nursing, medicine, pharmacy, speech language pathology and physical therapy — but also public health and social work.

“It’s almost a novelty in higher education to have social work and public health included in IPE,” says Betsy Blake, a clinical faculty member in the College of Pharmacy and director of IPE for the college. “I don’t think anyone is doing as much as we are in that regard.”

Carolina started its Interprofessional Education for the Health Sciences Initiative in 2011 and offers a team-taught, one-credit course titled "Transforming Health Care for the Future." Students from eight disciplines, including pharmacy, medicine, nursing, public health, speech language pathology, physical therapy, the School of Medicine’s genetic counseling program and social work, interact online and in several in-person classes throughout the semester.

“But we can’t just have students from different health fields in the same room together,” Blake says. “There has to be interaction with other disciplines, and we have to learn how to solve problems together.”

To that end, Blake team teaches the course with Teri Browne, an associate professor in the College of Social Work, and faculty from all health professional programs involved. Together they divide the students up into mixed-discipline teams of five or six.

“We have them do some online activities together and also consider case studies that involved some human error,” Browne says. “The whole point is to get students from different disciplines to connect and share.”

We want to do all this, ultimately, to produce better patient outcomes ... [the goal is] to produce graduates who are ready, willing and able to do interdisciplinary teamwork.

Les Hall, dean of the School of Medicine

Browne and Blake are considering ways to create not only shared classroom experiences but also share clinical learning opportunities for the university’s various health care disciplines.

“Meaningful IP clinical training for all health professional students is a long way off but it’s coming. It’s hard to pull off because rotations in the various disciplines are different,” Blake says. In the meantime, students learning from each other’s perspectives is important, but there are larger goals besides.

“We want to do all this, ultimately, to produce better patient outcomes,” says Les Hall, dean of the School of Medicine and a national leader in interprofessional education initiatives. “Students need to understand the role and function of an interdisciplinary team. The goal is to get them to advocate for interdisciplinary teams when they’re in the real world, and to produce graduates who are ready, willing and able to do interdisciplinary teamwork.”

Blake acknowledges there are disconnects between the real world of health care practice and the idealistic world of IPE, but exposing the next generation of health care professionals to interprofessional problem solving is the first step. “Now we’re asking how we can make it more universal and how we reach the professionals who already are in practice,” she says.

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