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Utah will pioneer a new kind of medical education. Here’s why it matters

Medicine students and staff at the University of Utah are spearheading a new medical education initiative.
University of Utah School of Medicine students, residents, physician assistants and community members listen as medical student Madison Kieffer speaks to reporters about the list of demands that they delivered to medical school administrators in accordance with the mission of White Coats for Black Lives in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 12, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Our two organizations, Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health, formed a partnership to shape a new model of care designed specifically to keep people in a state of good health. It will focus on preventing illnesses, rather than just treating people when they become sick.

Providers and caregivers across our state provide exceptional and compassionate care to Utahns when they are ill. But we know that keeping Utahns healthy needs to be a critical component in our delivery of health care. The pandemic has put that in sharp focus.

With Intermountain Healthcare’s multiyear $50 million investment and partnership, University of Utah Health will develop a new medical education program at the university’s School of Medicine. It will be the first of its kind in the United States.

The Population Health Student Scholars Program is designed to train physicians to consider a person’s immediate medical needs, along with their life circumstances, known as the social determinants of health, which play a key role in influencing illness and injury. These include housing, neighborhoods, education, transportation, food security, personal security and the opportunity to have meaningful work.

Through our partnership, medical students at the University of Utah will be trained to identify concerning determinants and begin conversations with their patients about barriers to good health. Future physicians will be equipped with the skills to ask their patients questions such as: Do you have a refrigerator to store your insulin for your diabetes? Can you afford healthy food? Are you getting daily exercise? Can you walk safely around your neighborhood? Can you get in to see a doctor when you need to?

While better health outcomes are optimal reasons to move to a population health program, another benefit is the financial savings for Utahns. For example, when physicians work together with expectant mothers to influence appropriate prenatal care and then effective childhood development after birth, expensive stays in the newborn and pediatric intensive care units can often be avoided.

As our broadened practice of health care extends beyond treating the sick to include a focus on behavioral factors, providers have discovered concepts of population health through their firsthand experience treating patients. But physicians have had an unfulfilled gap in their education and training. Now, medical students and residents will have formal education in preventative care, right from the beginning of their careers. What better way to usher in a new generation of medicine than to educate the next generation of caregivers on this sensible approach to care delivery.

The concepts and science behind public health will be integrated throughout the university’s medical education curriculum. In fact, core educators at the School of Medicine are already developing a curriculum renewal around these concepts. We envision that, as students enter their clinical rotations, they will spend longer periods of time in communities where they see things through a patient’s lens.

Along with establishing the Population Health Student Scholars Program at the U’s School of Medicine, Intermountain’s investment will also provide tuition support for medical students accepted into the program. There will be 10 Student Scholars in the entering classes of 2021 and 2022, and 25 students in each entering class thereafter.

The investment will provide an opportunity for the university to seek legislative and accreditation approvals to increase the number of medical students in each class; create three endowed professorships, the Intermountain Population Health Sciences Professors; and create four Intermountain Population Health Endowed Chairs. These School of Medicine faculty will teach the student scholars and lead research and clinical education opportunities.

This first-of-its-kind initiative is a transformative and sustainable model for health care. For patients, it promises greater productivity as human beings. And it is an affordable approach to staying healthy, as well as taking care of people when they are sick so they can return to good health. It will serve as a shining model of the best in medical education.

Dr. Marc Harrison is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare. Dr. Michael L. Good is CEO of University of Utah Health, executive dean of U of U School of Medicine, and senior vice president for Health Sciences.