For Your Health
For Your Health

News from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

Social Determinants

A new elective on cultural diversity helps train medical students for the patients many of us don’t see.

New physician Dr. Eric Leveille (pronounced “Livia”) admits that he probably didn’t have the recently arrested in mind when, as a first-year medical student, he envisioned tending to patients in need.

But there he was last spring, looking after not only the temporary residents of the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility in Minneapolis, Minn., but working with Hennepin County translators and social workers on providing care to New Americans.

“Hennepin County has one of the largest interpreter units in the state,” said Leveille, speaking of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) medical student cultural diversity elective (FMED 9511) he participated in for one of his final training blocks. “Every day was different for us. It opened us up to all these different opportunities within healthcare related to patient care—like being with a social worker or an interpreter, or the police.”

The social determinants of health

Leveille was part of an inaugural group participating in an SMHS Department of Family & Community Medicine-based diversity elective for fourth-year medical students. Designed to “expose students to diverse populations and the unique socioeconomic and cultural factors that influence health outcomes and access to services,” according to the course’s syllabus, the elective gives students real, direct experience with what are today called the “social determinants of health” in a variety of settings.

As the School’s former Diversity & Equity Coordinator Lynn Mad Plume put it, medical students were all but demanding such a course on those determinants—socioeconomic status, physical and psychological stress, employment, social support/isolation, race/ethnicity, food access, and transportation—that the World Health Organization says “can be more important than healthcare [systems] or lifestyle choices in influencing health.”

“Our medical students had expressed the need for exposure to a more diverse patient-provider setting,” explained Mad Plume, currently a student in the School’s world-first doctoral program in Indigenous Health. “UND traditionally scores lower on one Association of American Medical Colleges [AAMC] survey that asks students if they feel their medical education prepared them to work with diverse patients. We do score higher on engaging American Indian peoples, but sometimes lack broader representation within the School.”

The hope, then, is that the elective will help change such survey results for the better, not only by exposing medical students to patients who look different than they do, but connecting them to patients whose experience of things like poverty, incarceration, or addiction may be very different from that of their health providers.

“Our fourth-year scheduler said that we could take this elective in diversity for four weeks—one week in Grand Forks and then three weeks at Hennepin County Medical Center in the Twin Cities,” added Dr. Kemin Fena, who graduated alongside Leveille last May and noted that the elective’s initial run was delayed for two years due to COVID. “They’re a safety net hospital and serve a lot of urban, underserved people, and there’s a lot of cultural diversity that we don’t always see on our four [SMHS] campuses [in North Dakota]. It’s one thing to learn from a lecture what the social determinants of health might look like or how it might feel to be raised in a food desert. It’s another thing to be working directly with patients and applying goals that would address those social determinants of health in a real-life setting.”

Diversity in medicine

Truth be told, it’s not only UND that has grappled with this challenge. Many schools score lower on this specific AAMC survey than they would like.

For its part, in fact, UND in some ways outperforms its peers in training for diversity in medicine. As Mad Plume suggested, the School’s Indians Into Medicine program has helped all SMHS students in this regard at the same time as it has produced nearly 20% of the nation’s Indigenous physicians—270-plus since 1973.

Even so, there are still too few doctors from American Indian/Alaska Native backgrounds practicing actively. And according to one AAMC report, the percentage of American medical students who identify as African American has actually declined since the 1970s.

This lack of representation can literally be a matter of life-and-death, say Fena and Leveille, citing the many American Indian faculty at the SMHS.

“I’m Native American,” continued Leveille, who came to North Dakota from Michigan as an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “And I didn’t meet a Native physician until I came to UND. There are many populations like that—people who don’t have physicians who look like them. It makes patients feel more comfortable, though, especially kids growing up, to see themselves represented [in medicine] and think, ‘Oh, that’s a goal I could achieve. That’s something I could be someday.’”

Fena agreed, adding that representation can facilitate better conversation between doctor and patient, which tends to result in better patient outcomes, particularly when conversations revolve around difficult topics.

“If we’re more comfortable asking those questions and treating patients [with different backgrounds], and even being more open to their experience—say, knowing what resources are available for undocumented persons—that matters,” she said. “It’s really important that we put ourselves in that position to face these difficult situations in our training so we can do it more competently when we’re the providers.”

Tailoring the experience

To that end, the elective’s coordinators worked closely with students to gear their patient experiences toward their own interests.

In Fena’s case, that meant looking for opportunities to work with more people of color in an urban setting, who are too often on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. For Leveille, that focus included exposure to the health needs of those in the LGBTQ+ population.

“Knowing a physician is open to talking about that stuff is huge,” he said. “They have that connection with those patients and are able to get into the deeper aspects of healthcare. I’ve noticed that just seeing patients in clinic: if you have that little something that you can connect with for a patient, you can grow that relationship more.”

For Fena, that very thing—relationship building—is the biggest takeaway: “You can’t really imagine something you haven’t seen before, or understand how it will impact your views of the world until you’ve actually done it. So, just seeing what it was like to work at a different type of hospital system with different providers and patients was really helpful to understand how their role can work with my role and how we can be a better team together.”

Leveille agreed with his former classmate, admitting that his family medicine residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is already richer for the elective experience. “I know it’s already coming in handy,” he concluded. “Here in residency, just knowing this stuff better—what this provider role does and how they can help—opens up options for patients.”

By Brian James Schill