An illustration of multiple health science-related activities.

Preparing all health science students for the professional world that awaits

UofSC’s interprofessional education program is ensuring students are prepared for the rapidly evolving health care system.

Each year, hundreds of University of South Carolina students from 11 different health professional programs are brought together for the betterment of their future patients.

The university’s interprofessional education program allows future social workers, pharmacists, nurses, doctors and others to step outside their educational siloes and engage their future colleagues in meaningful conversation. Through a semester-long course, clinical experiences, after-hour social events, training programs, research partnerships and experiential opportunities, South Carolina is preparing its health care students for the increasingly interconnected health professions landscape.

However, things weren’t always smooth sailing for the IPE program. In fact, its first year offering a semester-long, interdisciplinary course — which is now synonymous with the program and its success — was a near disaster.

“The students hated it,” says Betsy Blake, a clinical associate professor in the College of Pharmacy and co-director of interprofessional education at South Carolina.

Of the 437 students in 2013 who were enrolled in the Transforming Healthcare for the Future course, only 30 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it was worthwhile for their professional development.

“It broke my heart,” Blake says. But it pushed her and other program leaders to make dramatic changes to the class. Gone were the materials they had borrowed from other established IPE programs. Instead, the course was redesigned as a student-centric experience focused on sparking and fostering conversation among its students.

The program’s leaders centered the class’ curriculum on the Interprofessional Education Collaborative Core Competencies that focus on roles and responsibilities, teamwork, communication and values and ethics.  The addition of conversations on ethics allowed students to see how different professions approached different situations, to understand where there could be conflicts between professions, and to identify where there could be collaboration in addressing ethical concerns, particularly in relation to health equity. They introduced discussion boards and encouraged students to discuss top-of-the-mind topics. They also got rid of large groups within the class, and instead split the class sessions into smaller groups to encourage greater conversation.

“I think that the biggest benefit was that we definitely realigned to meet the students’ needs,” Blake says.

In doing so, they provided a much more valuable experience to students. In 2019, 2020 and 2021, over 80 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that the class was worthwhile for their professional development. It, along with the other IPE-experiences offered at UofSC, also prepared students for the rapidly evolving health science landscape that now, more than ever, requires coordinated collaboration among its different professions.

Ross Hilliard was a medical student at South Carolina in 2011 and was involved in the university’s earliest IPE efforts. Along with Blake, Teri Browne and Elizabeth Baxley, Hilliard helped establish the university’s Institute for Healthcare Improvement chapter and was the chapter’s first president. His experience with the organization — which was the first formal experience on campus that sought to bring health care students from across the university together in interdisciplinary learning — helped prepare him for what was ahead. Now an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, those early experiences still benefit both him and his students today.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have to work collaboratively with people from multiple different health care disciplines,” Hilliard says.

He sees interprofessional education as “critically important” in today’s health care system. With the tremendous pressure the pandemic has put upon all health care workers, and the burnout and fatigue that is resulting from that strain, he says that interdisciplinary education has never been more important than it is today.

As IPE’s importance grows, one university’s program stands out for its excellence.

“I haven’t seen an example of a place that’s done [interprofessional education] in a more robust fashion than UofSC,” he says.

South Carolina is continuing to update and improve its IPE program; demonstrated most recently by its incorporation of telehealth into the curriculum. Through changes like this, it remains committed to growing its program so that all UofSC health science graduates are prepared to help the world around them upon graduation.

“The goal of our program is so that when students go out to practice, they know that they’re not alone,” says Rebecca Christopher, a counseling case manager and co-director of interprofessional education for the health sciences at UofSC. “They’re not going to be working in that silo. That they can reach out. That they can utilize these other health professions to optimize outcomes for their patients.”

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