Social determinants of health gaining prominence


Fragmented, essentializing, simplistic. That’s how students at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, described their required course on cultural competence. Lectures and discussions about cultural groups and communication issues weren’t providing them with the skills they needed to navigate doctor-patient relationships.

Matthew Duda, Emily Keyes, and Mitchell Johnson, students in the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Courtesy Penn Medicine

Matthew Duda, Emily Keyes, and Mitchell Johnson, students in the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Their criticism was a wake-up call that Horace Delisser, MD, associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the school, took to heart. He enlisted medical students to help reinvent the curriculum. The result, Introduction to Medicine and Society, launched in 2013 and described in an article published in 2017 (Acad Med. 2017;92[3]:335-43), emphasizes self-awareness and reflection about one’s own biases and the adoption of a less hierarchical and more respectful “other-oriented” approach to the patient relationship.

The course examines social determinants of health (SDHs) – the influences of society, government, culture, and health systems. Students analyze how health and health outcomes are affected by a patient’s income, education, and living and working conditions, as well as access to healthy food, safe water, and transportation.

The Perelman School of Medicine is just one of the many medical schools across the country that is revising training, both didactic and experiential, to teach students about SDHs. A host of policy makers, advisory groups, and organized medicine groups have called in recent years for educational efforts to boost all physicians’ working knowledge of health inequities and SDHs.

Dr. Delisser, associate professor of medicine who also practices as a pulmonologist at the Harron Lung Center in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, said SDHs play into daily care.

Dr. Horace Delisser, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Dr. Horace Delisser

Consider the patient who is chronically late for appointments. “It may not be an issue of the patient being disinterested in their health care, but maybe the public transportation system is unreliable, or maybe the patient has to take two buses and a subway to get there. I need [this knowledge] to inform my care and to engage my patient. I need to know, ‘what does it take for you to get here?’ That factors into how I [make the care plan],” said Dr. Delisser.

Malika Fair, MD, MPH, who teaches a longitudinal professional development class at George Washington University, Washington, and is senior director of health equity partnerships and programs at the American Association of Medical Colleges, provided the example of how her medical students intervened during their rotation in the emergency department on behalf of a newly-diagnosed patient with diabetes who had been unable to fill a prescribed medication. After determining where the patient lived, the students ensured that she had transportation and was able to get the needed medication at a local grocery store. They asked about her barriers to healthy eating, researched local grocery stores, and made practical recommendations that the patient was amenable to implementing. They identified a clinic closer to the patient’s home, and worked with her on making an appointment at a time when she could take off from work.

Dr. Malika Fair of George Washington University, Washington, senior director of health equity partnerships and programs at the American Association of Medical Colleges

Dr. Malika Fair

“Because of their training, these students were able to identify and address social risks in their first month on the ward,” said Dr. Fair, who also practices emergency medicine. They had learned about how to ask about food access and how safe it was for the patient to walk and exercise in her neighborhood.

At Perelman, most students work in student-led community clinics, and some fourth-year students participate in an elective rotation as apprentices to community health workers, learning to address SDHs and develop the cultural humility that they learned about in the classroom. The rotation was similarly created in 2013 and is described in a 2018 article (J Health Care Poor Underserved. 2018;29[2]:581-90).“Being a good physician involves being technically competent as well as what I call relationally competent,” Dr. Delisser said. “And [this involves] being aware that my relationship with a patient doesn’t exist in a vacuum ... that there’s a bigger, broader social and structural context that I need to know and understand. I [then need] to use that to inform how I mediate and empower that relationship.”

Aletha Maybank, MD, who became the American Medical Association’s first chief health equity officer earlier this year, explained that “the medical profession had a very strong social context at one point in time,” but this was dampened by the Flexner Report of 1910.*

Dr. Aletha Maybank, American Medical Association’s first chief equity officer

Dr. Aletha Maybank

The report revolutionized medical education by increasing its rigor, but “it was really focused on clinical and basic science and took out the social context, the context of what medicine is about,” said Dr. Maybank, a pediatrician with a board certification in preventive medicine/public health. “[Now] we’re asking, how do we revolutionize medical education again at this point in time, recognizing the confluence of information and data that we now have available to us about inequities and disparities ... and the sense of urgency from students.”

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