As an assistant professor of medical sciences, she's putting that knowledge to use as she helps design the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine's first two years of basic medical sciences curriculum. Medical students will not only learn the science of treating a disease or injury through 360-degree evaluations of case studies, but also learn about the environmental and social factors that play a role in healing.
"We want our students to learn how to care for people holistically, and that means health promotion and disease prevention, as well as illness management," says Williams. "It also means understanding the impact poverty, racism, low literacy, social isolation, work and family can have on a patient's well-being. Our students will have the skills to be agents for social justice."
A physician, for example, could diagnose and treat a child with asthma, but without considering environmental factors, such as exposure to second-hand smoke, pollutants or mold that could trigger an asthma attack, the child will not get better. "If you are not addressing the social and behavioral issues as well, you haven't finished the job," she says.
Similarly, physicians need to be aware of their own biases. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a physician's religious beliefs influenced when and with whom they discussed end-of-life care. "It's important that early on we help students recognize their potential for bias in the way they care for patients," she says. "With self-awareness, they can overcome their biases and practice medicine competently, respectfully and with compassion."
The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has encouraged the addition of socio-behavioral influencers to medical school curricula.
"It's about improving the effectiveness of physicians," explains Williams. "It's about making a difference in someone's life."
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