The University Record, November 20, 2000

Health’s ties to culture, race, gender will be focus of new program

By Kara Gavin
Health System Public Relations

Michigan’s future doctors, nurses and other health care professionals may have a better understanding of the roles that culture, race and gender play in their patients’ health problems and needs, thanks to a newly awarded federal grant.

A $208,000 award, from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, will allow faculty from the U-M and Wayne State (WSU) and Michigan State (MSU) universities to develop and teach an interdisciplinary curriculum for pre-med students and other undergraduates bound for health careers. It also will bring national experts to the classroom to discuss major issues and provide for faculty workshops.

The aim of the project is to help students learn early on how culture and health intersect and interact, from beliefs about diseases and treatments to the health impact of a subculture’s history or diet. Such understanding may help them serve patients better in their future careers.

The program, housed in the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the Department of Psychiatry, is called “Seeing the Body Elsewise: Connecting the Health Sciences and the Humanities.”

The series of courses and lectures will use literature and other aspects of the humanities to teach students about the varying perceptions, experiences and expectations of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders.

Under the program, students from all three universities eventually will be able to minor in “Race, Gender, Culture and the Life Sciences,” taking advantage of the cross-institutional links being formed under the new Life Sciences Corridor effort.

“Patients and educators alike have told us that health professionals need more awareness of cultural diversity,” says principal investigator Jonathan Metzl, assistant professor of psychiatry and of women’s studies and co-director of the Rackham Interdisciplinary Institute. “Our project will offer a unique way for students to explore cultural differences and understand how those differences may affect their interaction with patients in the future.”

Metzl’s co-principal investigators on the grant at the U-M are John Carson, assistant professor of history; Sidonie Smith, professor of English and of women’s studies and director of the Women’s Studies Program; and Silke-Maria Weineck, assistant professor of Germanic languages and literature and a member of the Program in Comparative Literature. The project has the support of key deans, program heads, and more than 30 U-M humanities and medical faculty.

MSU English and medical ethics faculty member Steve Rachman, and WSU art and art history professor Judith Modenhauer are collaborators on the effort.

Faculty at the U-M will begin teaching four of the program’s new courses in winter 2001, with MSU and WSU faculty joining in with two more courses in the second and third years. By the fourth year, the minor will be formalized, and other existing courses that touch on cultural health issues will be cross-listed.

The new initiative will attempt to take a new approach to the notion of cultural competency in health education, based upon the observation that many “cross-cultural” interventions are rarely part of pre-health undergraduate education. In medical schools and residency, then, the message often is conveyed that cultural diversity is closely linked to disease. Students learn that African-Americans are more likely to suffer from sickle cell anemia, why women have a propensity for osteoporosis, and how schizophrenia preferentially afflicts the poor.

The program’s coordinators see their project as unique for two reasons:

  • It presents an innovative model for curriculum structure, exposing students to a range of methodologies and frameworks that will help them consider how cultural differences may affect how their patients describe their symptoms or how they themselves interpret a patient’s case.

  • The model shows this aim can be accomplished without creating a separate department, but instead can utilize resources already present within and among seemingly divergent departments, schools and universities in a state system.