Doctors as advocates for social change: there is a skill for that

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Photo Credit: Junie Yoo | Daily Texan Staff

This summer, the convergence of two pandemics — coronavirus and racism — has brought new urgency to the conversation, both nationally and here on the Forty Acres, regarding systemic inequities and the actions we must take to address them. 

To be any kind of health care worker today is to be a frontline advocate for social change. Knowledge of basic body systems and organic chemistry is not, and has never been, enough to be an effective healer. Ethical reasoning and empathy are not “soft skills.” They are crucial interpersonal competencies that should be embedded in all classes. This is particularly essential for pre-med science classes. 

All pre-med classes at UT and beyond should make this humanities-based education part of the class curriculum. This can no longer be optional.

Both COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement are highlighting the ongoing prevalence of health disparities and the implicit biases baked into the design of our health care system.

The health outcomes of coronavirus patients often come down to which hospital patients are admitted. In New York City, patients sent to public hospitals were three times more likely to die. 

In Texas, Hispanic and Black people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Despite only one-third of residents identifying as Hispanic, as of Sept. 9, they accounted for 43.3% of Travis County’s positive cases.

The practice of medicine, as well as both medical and pre-medical education offered at UT, must tangibly pivot in order to address these health care disparities. 

This fall, the School of Undergraduate Studies’ Bridging Disciplines Programs launched the Patients, Practitioners, and Cultures of Care certificate. Its explicit goal is to “(cultivate) skills and orientations central to any humanistic practice of health care.” It aims to teach the critical interpersonal skills of  “empathy, ethical sensitivity, self-reflection and self-care” that are crucial to ensuring racial justice in health care, but too often are undervalued and inadequately addressed in curriculums.

Just as significantly, many basic science classes at UT are already prioritizing learning that encourages students to contextualize their introductions to the fields of biology and chemistry by exploring ethical topics typically viewed as in the domain of the humanities. 

This summer I was enrolled in Introductory Laboratory Experiments in Biology with Martha Maas, an assistant professor of instruction, and I was surprised to find myself immediately discussing equity issues related to the incidence and treatment of the coronavirus. My class featured regular ethics-focused assignments. Among the topics I researched and wrote about were ethical considerations in the manufacturing of health-related products and the forced sterilization of Native American women and girls in the 1900s.

This new focus is designed to meet the challenge of integrating humanities into the sciences. 

“Many of the students enrolled in BIO 206L are preparing to become health professionals and researchers,” Maas said. “I believe these students especially need courses that encourage them to apply ethical reasoning to real-life situations.” 

Like me, most students have appreciated the added content. 

“I have been overwhelmed by the positive feedback,” Maas said. “UT students want the opportunity to think deeply about current issues and hear other points of view.”

Recognition of the need for a complete transformation of our health care system, which too often is hostile to the needs of some of its most vulnerable constituencies, is not new. 

What is heartening is the curricular innovations underway at UT, such as the new Bridging Disciplines pathway and the incorporation of ethics-based training into intro science classes. But this is just the beginning. All pre-med science classes need to include this kind of material to prepare future health care providers for their advocacy role. 

Strelitz-Block is a Plan II sophomore from Austin, Texas.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the operation of the Bridging Disciplines Programs​​​​​​ within the School of Undergraduate Studies.