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Five health-care professionals are seen from above, collaborating.

Empowering health-care professionals to collaborate across disciplines can enhance patient outcomes.

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In the world of health care, the path to patient well-being is often a collaborative journey. Everyday miracles are achieved through the collective expertise of health-care professionals, each contributing their specialized knowledge to unravel the intricacies of the human body and improve lives.

Yet in postsecondary education programs, the landscape is marked by disciplinary silos. Different health-care specialties—such as speech-language pathology, physical therapy, occupational therapy and nursing—are taught as though they each function independently.

This compartmentalization, while rooted in tradition, can limit the potential for holistic patient care. The result? Too many missed opportunities to harness the full healing power of interprofessional collaboration—an oversight that directly impacts patient outcomes. After all, no one practitioner can learn enough to untangle the full complexity of the human body, let alone the complexity of a human life.

For the most part, we trust health-care providers to eventually learn the art of collaboration through trial and error. But there is a better way. The synergy of diverse health-care disciplines can be nurtured through interprofessional education. By empowering health care professionals who can seamlessly collaborate across disciplines, IPE can ultimately enhance patient outcomes and reshape the health-care landscape.

Working Toward Interprofessional Education

Rather than requiring speech-language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists or nurses to start their careers and discover on their own how their work fits into the big picture, we should, in fact, be adding interprofessional education to all our health care programs. IPE gives us a way to promote collaboration from the very beginning of a degree or licensing program, strengthening providers’ grasp of different roles and capabilities and helping them coordinate their efforts.

Although the idea of IPE has been around for decades, we have not implemented it at scale in most of our education programs. Yet IPE has the potential to eliminate gaps or redundancies in care, prevent diagnostic errors and reduce overbilling. Above all, it allows professionals to collaborate more effectively with other health-care specialists and provide better patient care.

The ultimate goal of an IPE model is a health-care system greater than the sum of its parts, one that can seamlessly support patients in every aspect of their humanity. Because patients’ needs often cross the boundaries of our disciplines, to provide true patient-centered care, we must understand what care is available outside our own offices, where our strengths and limitations lie and how to enhance the work done by colleagues in other specialties.

In other words, the health-care field must understand itself better. And the way to start this process is to examine how we are educating the next generations of health-care professionals.

Equity and IPE

As the health-care profession grapples with stubborn health disparities in underserved communities, IPE has the potential to alleviate those disparities. Training under an IPE model can replicate the experience of working in multidisciplinary practices such as at free clinics, where such communities tend to receive services.

Students trained in this way may be more familiar on their first day on the job with interprofessional experience and better able to offer culturally competent care. Second, the importance of assembling well-coordinated health-care teams becomes all the more obvious in cases of complex, at-risk patients, who are overrepresented in these communities.

And finally, outside of free clinics, overbilling and medical redundancies pose significant barriers to care for disadvantaged patients, so in its streamlining effect, IPE offers an enlarged benefit to this population.

Practitioners most likely cannot expect to create sweeping change on their own; it will take collaboration across disciplines to dissolve the old inequalities in patient outcomes that we see today. IPE is one step toward that crucial evolution.

How to Get Started in Implementing and Scaling IPE

University administrators will, of course, wonder how we can bring these lofty goals into reach without tearing our entire learning infrastructure down. But the good news is that we can implement IPE in health-care education programs in many ways. The specifics may vary between schools and programs, but the cornerstones of success here will always be creativity, intention and commitment.

  • Simulation labs. Building simulation labs on campuses creates a substrate from which interprofessional practice can grow. In these labs, students from different programs can practice working together on problem-solving exercises, scenarios and other activities that will reflect the multidisciplinary environment they encounter as fully fledged practitioners.
  • Faculty collaboration. Revising curricula to encourage joint lectures, case discussions across disciplines and shared clinical experiences can allow faculty from different disciplines to bring their students together and model the behaviors we need in health care.
  • Community health fairs. Health fairs put different departments together in one place, where they can observe, learn from, teach and inspire each other while they are giving information to the public and offering medical screenings. Merely seeing all their peers working toward a common goal can expand students’ perspectives beyond the limits of their siloed specialty.
  • Clinical rotations. Providing care to real patients at free community clinics or in other clinical settings, alongside colleagues from other disciplines, is maybe the most powerful demonstration we can give students of the importance of collaboration in health care. Students with this kind of training will be able to draw from it over the course of their entire careers.

Scaling IPE, likewise, is a matter of creativity and persistence, involving:

  • Cohorts. Breaking students into cohorts can make it easier to engage large numbers of them in interdisciplinary activities.
  • Repetition. Reusing resources whenever appropriate is key. For example, you can put different cohorts of students through a simulation once each to expose them to a new concept or the same cohort through the simulation multiple times to reinforce important points.
  • Team-building. Fostering collaboration can be done in many ways outside of medical contexts, such as escape rooms, obstacle courses or within other team-building exercises.

The Time Is Right

So many patients need help not in hypotheticals but, in fact, deserve the best of our combined abilities. I believe interprofessional education can give them that.

For example, I know of a graduate-level simulation, currently in development, that will test the skill and cooperation of students under conditions as close as possible to those of the interprofessional reality they will face later. In this simulation (a case conference on an unhoused patient with a drug addiction who will be discharged to a homeless shelter), students from physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing and speech-language pathology programs at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences must contribute specialized skills from their disciplines to untangle the challenges such a case might present. The goal of the exercise is to open students’ eyes to the full, often gritty, picture of health care today, including gaps in the system and barriers to access, while reinforcing health-care workers’ power to provide excellent patient care by relying on each other’s strengths.

Making IPE a priority today in health-care education can help create a pipeline of skilled, adaptable practitioners far into the future, practitioners who can find the right solution for a given patient not just within the arsenal their discipline maintains, but within any arsenal, from any discipline.

The time is right for us to bring our abilities, knowledge and energy together. What are we waiting for?

Norman Belleza is the founding director of interprofessional education and an assistant professor for physical therapy programs at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. Belleza presents nationally and internationally in the emerging field of simulation in rehabilitation education, with a focus on interprofessional education.

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