Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning the Conscience of Medicine: Medical Students Explore Women’s Health Issues

By Aditi Raye Allen
Third-Year Medical Student
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School

The first two years of medical school are a blur of PowerPoints and multiple choice questions. If it weren’t somehow done every year at hundreds of medical schools — and if I hadn’t experienced it myself — I’d say the task of crunching through that amount of information was impossible.

Between the seemingly unending streams of science, students occasionally get a glimpse of the conscience of medicine: volunteering at a clinic, patient interview training, or an exploration of clinical ethics. One set of opportunities at my medical school is “enrichment electives,” student-driven classes on a variety of topics. These give students an opportunity to explore areas that matter to them by inviting faculty to speak on the subjects.

Last year, fellow classmates and I created a course to focus entirely on the subject of women’s health. The primary objective is to prepare physicians-in-training to approach medical issues that are for the most part unique to women. These include domestic violence, eating disorders, genital mutilation, unintended pregnancy, transgender health, abortion, and menopause, among others. We chose subjects that we felt were not taught in detail in the already-packed medical school curriculum.

There is no shortage of subject matter: Women face a unique set of health challenges in today’s society. In Texas, 54 percent of pregnancies are unintended, and since 2011, funding cuts to safety-net health care services have led to fewer women receiving screenings and contraception. Rising costs of child care, combined with a gender wage gap, mean many women must often ignore their own health needs in favor of maintaining a family.

Many of our course topics speak to these challenges, and that was intentional. Social and medical issues generally go hand in hand, and women’s health is a fantastic example. The traditional arc of medicine tends to minimize women’s health issues, and our program counters that trend. We designed it to reinforce preclinical students’ knowledge of women’s health concerns, from both a scientific and a social perspective. We want to help create a generation of doctors that never forgets to ask: “What form of contraception are you using?” and “At home, do you feel safe?” and “How do you cope with stress?”

During the progression of our 13-week elective, a faculty member or other professional in the field presents the clinical and operational aspects of one health topic during a lunch-hour lecture on Wednesday. We were thrilled to regularly host more than 50 medical students for our lectures, and to later receive extremely positive feedback on the course. We had 36 students officially complete the program (attendance at 10 of the 13 lectures), and we have both a team and a plan to run the elective again this coming fall semester.

Although medical school can feel like living in a bubble, we bear the same responsibility to our future patients as any other care provider: Understand your patient. There is a lot to understand that is unique and critical to women’s health, and our curriculum connects the preclinical with the clinical years in this area. It is my hope that with more similar courses and discussions, we can build an educational experience that truly connects the science with the conscience sooner and sooner in medical education.

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