Why the diversity of medical students is important

As a medical student, it’s difficult to face a situation where everything possible is done for a patient, yet due to circumstances (seemingly) beyond our control, the risk of future harm remains uncomfortably certain. The majority of our medical school learning focuses on how to cure illness; unfortunately we’re not always taught how to deal with the real world issues that face our patients and that threaten the medicine we practice.

This month I’ve been on my neurology rotation at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, a county hospital with patient demographics quite different from those seen at Stanford Hospital. As I serve a more diverse and disadvantaged socioeconomic population, it’s often the case that the information in the patient’s “social history” section, which I usually quickly pass over, becomes a defining piece in deciding next steps. The 20-something-year-old with daily seizures because he’s so high on methamphetamine that he forgets to take his pills, the 40-year-old with left-sided paralysis who keeps checking in to the emergency department because she feels unsafe living alone in a trailer park, the 60-year-old who didn’t present to the hospital until days after suffering a stroke because he couldn’t physically get to the door to call for help: These patients demonstrate how social situations can make efforts to provide medical care at times seem futile.

In medical school, we’re taught the pathophysiology of disease and systematic approaches to medical management, but not how to deal with social contributors to health. (The latter is a not-so-glamorous aspect of medicine relegated to the hidden curriculum of clerkships.) During pre-clinical years we spend a lot of time discussing how to make empathy a part of our clinical skillset, but a pitfall to practicing medicine in a way that is sensitive to a patient’s social context is the belief that showing empathy is enough. To express concern for a patient is different from really understanding a patient’s challenges. Things like the fear that drives a patient to repeatedly present to the emergency room for “inappropriate” reasons and the thought process behind not getting an MRI done since it would mean missing work may not fit traditional logic, but they represent an important piece in delivering care.

What can’t be taught in school is an inherent understanding of the difficulties that some patients face, which is why the push for future physicians to be individuals representative of the various backgrounds that patients come from is so important. (It can be surmised that students who have endured these difficulties, themselves or through family, socioeconomic or health related, could better relate to patients they come in contact with.) While socioeconomic demographics are easily seen on paper, though, what is harder to select for and recruit is the student who has lived the real world environment characterized by social issues like multiplicity of chronic illness, housing insecurity, and financial hardship. And, of course, many students in this very position never make it to the point of training for a health profession as a result of the very hardships that make them more attune to the social issues that may contribute to poor health.

Medical school recruitment has changed in ways that will hopefully improve diversity of recruited students and contribute to a greater understanding of the background of all sorts of patients among health care providers. However, more still needs to be done to support students from less traditional and underrepresented backgrounds so they reach the point of applying in the first place.

Instead of being discouraged by their less-than-ideal journeys to medical school, students who have endured educational, financial, and social hurdles should be encouraged to use their learned experiences as a frame of reference to positively impact the delivery of health care.

Moises Gallegos is a medical student who blogs at Scope, where this article originally appeared.

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