By Michael J. Friedlander, PhD
The article in the most recent issue of the AAMC’s Analysis in Brief, “Interprofessional Educational Opportunities and Medical Students’ Understanding of the Collaborative Care of Patients,” by Drs. Grbic, Caulfield, and Matthew, provides an interesting and informative look at interprofessional education for medical students interacting with many health professions.
Although the interactions between medical students and other health professionals were considered (nurses, PAs, etc.), it is too bad that the questionnaire did not poll students about interactions with an additional group of health professionals at academic medical centers and medical schools: health researchers. These professionals are an integral part of the modern health team, with research that spans from T0 through T4 translational levels. Many health researchers have PhDs (although others may have MPH, MD, MD/PhD, or DVM degrees) and are faculty in basic science or clinical departments, or in institutes or centers at academic health centers. They often carry out research in collaboration with physicians.
The research they do may be fundamental, directed at identifying normative or disease mechanisms, developing new diagnostics, therapeutics, and/or cures; or it may be directed at healthy lifestyles, sometimes extending to implementation science or health policy. Health research benefits from, and health researchers are informed by, interactions with health providers. Likewise, health providers make better decisions for their patients by being involved with or aware of current research initiatives. It is clearly a bi-directional process with a common goal of delivering improved health and health care for patients.
I realize that it is not as common these days to include health researchers as part of the health team. However, I think that view is somewhat myopic and misses an essential component of the health care delivery spectrum and the important synergies that derive from interprofessional interactions from the beginning of training future health care providers. After all, much of medicine is in a rapid and ongoing state of flux; our understanding at many levels is still incomplete and dependent on ongoing discovery. Whether driven by the need for biomarkers and effective treatments for Alzheimer’s, the need to understand why so many effective treatments are not being implemented regularly, or the quest to empower patients to make better health decisions, research is an essential part of any realistic plan to improve health.
Without interactions between health providers and health researchers, each group will go its own way at a cost to patients. Thus, whatever we can do to facilitate those interactions, lower barriers, and incentivize collaboration and mutual education should increase the likelihood for better health care. In order to achieve that goal, it is important to include the early bridging of health providers and researchers in IPE initiatives.
There are successful examples of interactions between medical students and health researchers across the country. We have incorporated them at our institution, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute in Roanoke, VA. Here, medical students carry out research with health researchers and providers; their education is delivered by researchers and providers; and they participate in some interactive classes and projects with other graduate students training to be health researchers from our PhD program in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health.
I hope that in future studies, we may be able to learn about the degree to which IPE interactions that include health researchers are occurring and, when they are not, understand what the barriers and reasons may be. In fact, I cannot think of any two groups that are potentially as important for interacting to improve health outcomes than health care providers and health researchers. Such
interactions capture the essence of IPE as stated in the 2011 Interprofessional Education Collaborative publication, “Core Competencies for Interprofessional Collaborative Practice: Report of an Expert Panel,” that describes “students from two or more professions learn[ing] about, from, and with each other to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes.”
Michael J. Friedlander, PhD, is executive director, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; associate provost for Health Sciences, Virginia Tech; and senior dean for research, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.