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How Race & Ethnicity Could Help Shape UT's Medical School Curriculum

Jeff Heimsath for KUT News

When the University of Texas’ new Dell Medical School opens its doors in 2016, it will be the first new medical school at a leading research university in over fifty years. And its creation offers significant possibilities for doctors, educators and public health advocates. 

“We see this as an exciting opportunity to rethink medical education from the ground up,” says New York University professor Helena Hansen, one of the participants at this week’s conference on racial and ethnic health disparities. “Because you’re starting a program from scratch here in Austin, you can think very big.” 

Epidemiologist Jay Kaufman agrees. “It would certainly be our hope that this is an opportunity for a real break from the past, for a new curriculum to develop that takes into account a lot of things that tradition has crowded out at other established medical schools.”

So what’s been crowded out of traditional curricula?

"Traditionally there's been a real division between the quote-unquote ‘hard’ sciences of medicine and the quote-unquote ‘soft’ sciences of medicine, with the 'soft' sciences getting progressively less and less funding, less and less time in the curriculum,” says Hansen. “What we see here is an opportunity to integrate them.”

Traditional medical schools train doctors to think in solely terms of quantitative data. But conference attendees argue abandoning qualitative data can lead to mistaken correlations and misdiagnosis among certain demographics.

"Frequently we see statistics about the prevalence of a condition in one group versus another group, and this leads to some stereotyping about groups being susceptible to certain diseases,” Kaufman says.

Take, for example, disproportionate hypertension rates among African-American men. Though parts of the medical community long assumed that high blood pressure was part of the genetic blueprint of men of African descent, recent research indicates that high blood pressure may be attributed to environmental as well as genetic factors. Similar findings apply to high rates of childhood obesity and diabetes observed among Latino populations. 

While genetic predisposition certainly play a role in health outcomes, latent genetic tendencies are often triggered by external socio-cultural factors – poverty, lack of access to healthy foods, and other systemic structural issues. 

If that’s the case, then preventative health begins with changing society itself. As pediatrician Stephen Pont with the Dell Children’s Medical Center explains, “If we want folks to be as successful as possible leading healthy, happy lives, then we need to also serve as advocates working for community change.” 

Helena Hansen agrees, noting the duty of the medical community to prepare students with the skills they will need to become advocates of community change: “We’re trying to align our forces to make sure that the politics of medicine are visible, are something that medical students are able to see and begin to be involved in in a conscious way. Because their education shouldn’t just leave them prepared to be technicians in the narrowest sense. If they’re going to improve the health of their patients, they’re going to need to know a lot more than which antibiotics cover which bacteria.”

Still, plenty is unknown when it comes to UT’s medical school. “We’re all struggling here to understand what we might be able to make of this curriculum in Austin,” Kaufman says. “We don’t know yet who the dean is going to be, we don’t know yet exactly what resources are going to be available here.”

But Kaufman is hopeful UT can craft “a curriculum that corresponds to the true needs of students, to be able to pass these tests and be certified, while at the same time trying to be innovative and trying to respond to the changing needs of the demographics in this country.” 

Update: This post has been revised to include an additional quote from Helena Hansen on development of the medical school’s curriculum.

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