A new collaboration between Dentistry and Sociology will arm dental students with the knowledge to better assess and respond to the social causes of poor health and disease.
|Mark LaGory and Mike McCracken have collaborated to create a 36-hour class for first-year dental students that gives them the knowledge to better assess and respond to the social causes of poor health and disease.
The goal is to teach first-year dental students the importance of investigating each patient’s personal and social circumstances to provide the most thorough care possible.
“We need to teach our students more about life and real-world interactions and the factors that contribute to a person’s health-care decisions,” says Michael McCracken, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate dean for education and curriculum development in the Department of Prosthodontics. “Every decision a patient makes regarding their health care is wrapped up in their background and decisions they have made in their life.”
Mark LaGory, Ph.D., chair and professor of sociology, says patients’ social backgrounds affect their overall health in a variety of ways. Class, race and gender differences impact the kinds of risks to which people are exposed, their health beliefs and attitudes and their life styles. Because health-care professionals have a significant impact on a patient’s well being, it’s important for these dentists in training to understand the need to gain perspective of each patient’s unique situation.
“Understanding that the patient that they’re working with is a person with a context and a history is essential to providing quality health care,” LaGory says. “Each patient brings their own distinctive history into a relationship with a health-care professional and a specific set of expectations and communication style that I think we can help the health-care professional anticipate.”
McCracken approached LaGory about a collaboration in 2007 when the School of Dentistry was overhauling its curriculum. McCracken was searching the sociology department’s Web site when he came across their medical sociology doctoral track and found the expertise the dental students needed.
The two put together a 36-hour course taught by 10 sociology professors from different specialties. More than 55 first-year dental students recently completed the course, which covered topics that included addiction; disparities in health and health behaviors by social class, race, ethnicity and gender; urban/rural differences in health-care delivery; homelessness; dentists’ responsibilities for reporting domestic abuse; class differences in the office and implications for work relationships; and factors influencing the doctor-patient relationship.
“Many of these students have primarily had science courses, so these topics are a challenge for them,” LaGory says. “It’s not necessarily that it’s hard for them in the sense of performance, but it’s hard for them to come in and be asked these kinds of questions. To have them thinking about those kinds of issues early on means they’re going to integrate that into their education throughout the process. It’s very likely when they start being given cases to address and they’re problem-solving in groups, part of the case they’re dealing with is going to have some sort of social identity that challenges them to deal with the patient in a more holistic manner.”
The students performed very well in the course, LaGory says, meeting the goals and learning the materials. Many said they wanted to integrate these topics into future class work. Several wanted to organize a volunteer effort in the community.
Room to grow
McCracken says few dental schools employ sociology courses in the curriculum and those schools may have a sociologist on staff.
McCracken and LaGory think their collaboration enables students to delve more in to specific health-related topics with a variety of experts. “What’s different about having access to a whole department is that you get access to all of the research specialties of the department,” LaGory says.
McCracken and LaGory already are devising plans for next year’s course, which incorporates feedback provided by students.
Dentistry education utilizes a case-based approach to teaching, and students are actively engaged in solving problems for themselves. McCracken wants the sociology course to move in that direction.
“Maybe we can take them to a cancer ward where they can get a better understanding of the issues facing those patients. It’s going to be hands-on.”