The Value of Health Systems Science Education

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Medical school professor using model to teach nursing students
The authors advocate for increased use of system-based practice in undergraduate and graduate medical school.

Awareness of factors outside the clinic or hospital has increasingly necessitated changes in medical education. In a recent article published in the AMA Journal of Ethics, the authors enumerated the values of health systems science. Since the 1990s, there has been a larger focus on medical errors and a resulting movement to improve models of care delivery. Systems-based practice was installed as 1 of the 6 core competencies in undergraduate and graduate medical education, yet as late as 2012, educators were still without a formal framework to aid them in redesigning curricula. In recent years, many medical schools have adapted to include HSS as a part of their programs. The article outlined the ways in which HSS competencies are of value in a medical education and how they can benefit physicians and patients beyond the medical school setting.

The shift toward incorporating health systems science in medical education presents a new professional identity for physicians. Beyond serving as diagnosticians and caregivers, physicians must embrace the roles of leader of and collaborator within healthcare teams. Mastering health systems science competencies such as teaming, leadership, and healthcare structures, processes, and collaboration can allow for a shift in physicians’ professional identities from individual providers to citizens of the healthcare system. The eventual goal of this reimagining of physicians’ identities is to improve healthcare delivery and, ultimately, patient health. A part of this citizenship requires determining how social factors affect patients’ lives and exploring strategies such as working to provide patients with cheaper alternatives to medications, assisting patients in enrolling in medical assistance programs, or identifying and rectifying inefficient clinical processes.

In terms of the role of medical schools in the health systems science framework, schools and educators should embrace the opportunities to address the needs in patients’ daily lives and communities. Partnering with outside institutions such as social work programs or drug rehabilitation programs could give medical schools the chance to align physician training with helping patients meet day-to-day needs. Incorporating these HSS ideas into the role of medical schools would naturally lead to improved health outcomes via increased communication among physicians, community workers, and patients.

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Many medical schools are beginning to adopt health systems science topics into their curricula. Although some students may not believe these ideas are worth exploring, it is likely because they do not understand the profound value of health systems science topics as pertaining to patients’ day-to-day lives. The Penn State College of Medicine, for example, encourages students to pursue activities according to the health systems science curriculum. One benefit that arose from this was a program to provide fresh produce to at-risk patients, a student-developed initiative that was funded by the institution. As the healthcare landscape continues to change, medical education must also evolve. By including health systems science competencies in medical education curricula, medical schools will help to ensure that future physicians are prepared to become competent systems citizens who can provide improved patient care.

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Davis CR, Gonzalo JD. How medical schools can promote community collaboration through health systems science education. AMA J Ethics. 2019;21(3):E239-E247.

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag