0 Beyond Flexner: Taking the Social Mission of Medical Schools to the next level

In my blog entry for June 20, 2010, A New Way of Ranking Medical Schools: Social Mission, I discussed the article by Mullan, Chen and colleagues that had just been published in in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”. That seminal article provided concrete data on how medical schools ranked based on 3 criteria related to social mission: percent of underrepresented minority students in their classes, percent of graduates practicing in health professions shortage areas (HPSAs) and percent of their graduates actually practicing in primary care following their residency training. Unsurprisingly, the schools at the top of these rankings were a very group than those at the top than of more traditional rankings, such as US News and World Report, which are based on criteria like reputation, selectivity (what percent of applicants are rejected?) and research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Indeed, those schools that tend to rank at the top in the latter set of criteria were generally at the bottom of the list in social mission.

It didn’t make those traditional "powers" happy to be ranked at the bottom, and so they did the two things usually done by people and organizations who are found to be lacking by the data: they denied that it was true, that somehow the data was wrong, and they attacked the values of social mission, saying, in essence, that the characteristics being measured by the social mission rankings were not the important ones. The important criteria, of course, were those in which they -- the schools ranked low in social mission and high in traditional rankings – did well. Denying the truth of the study was hard, because the statistics used for measuring the 3 social mission criteria were not inaccurate. Mostly, then, their argument was “Oh, that data is old. We are better now!” But the reason the authors looked at graduates from 1999-2001 was that it allowed them to see several years after completing their primary residency training, not only whether graduates were really practicing in HPSAs, but whether they were really practicing in primary care. Medical schools like to count all students entering internal medicine residencies as “primary care”, when only a small percent do not enter subspecialty fellowships or practice as hospitalists and actually end up in primary care. And, in fact, in that 8 year interval, in the first decade of the 2000s, the numbers got worse.

So these critics mostly focused on the second defense, downgrading the importance of social mission. The measures they suggested (which they do well on) were: 1) getting a lot of money to do research (a little self-fulfilling, since the NIH panels that award research grants are largely staffed by people at the institutions that get research grants; in addition, this research is overwhelming done in the basic biomedical laboratory or early clinical trials, not in the community or the general population); 2) having a great reputation so that faculty who want to get big research grants want to come work there and students with high grades, mostly from the elite upper and upper middle class, want to attend, and 3) having a great reputation, so “peer” evaluators will say “yeah, you’re good!”

One can reasonably argue that the 3 criteria examined by Mullan and colleagues do not completely reflect the social impact of medical schools. Other criteria might include creation of community training experiences, community involvement and engagement in providing venues for training and in determining the type of research carried out by medical school investigators, the degree to which research and programs carried out by the medical school decrease health disparities, and the degree to which the health of communities and populations are increased by the activities of the medical school in practice, research, and education. However, these are not the criteria that the traditional “top” schools want to be evaluated on. The fact is that they are doing what they do, and what they do does not address diversity of the workforce, disparities in health, community involvement, or modern models of interprofessional education.

The next step in the Social Missions of Medical Education movement occurred in Tulsa, OK, May 16-18, 2012 at the “Beyond Flexner” conference. 100 years ago Abraham Flexner was commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation to look at medical education in the US. As a result of his report, more than half of US medical schools closed. Those that remained were largely the ones that had adopted a scientific basis for their medical education and were based in or tightly tied with research universities. For over a half-century, these schools grew with emphasis on the biomedical research enterprise and the training of highly skilled subspecialists, and little interest in any kind of social mission. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s saw the first large number of new medical schools, and then quiescence until this decade, with a number of additional schools being created. Many of those in both the 1970s and 2000s groups manifested, at least initially, a social mission – that is, they had the goal of actually producing doctors and research that would improve the health of the population.

“Beyond Flexner” was co-sponsored by Mullan’s Medical Education Future Studies group from George Washington University and the new University of Oklahoma-Tulsa School of Community Medicine, led by Dr. Gerry Clancy, President of OU-Tulsa. Under Dr. Clancy, OU-Tulsa has transformed from a site for clinical training of a portion of the students from the OU School of Medicine in Oklahoma City to become the first 4-year school officially called “Community Medicine”. It was also one of the 6 schools that were part of the follow-up study of social mission, and whose leaders presented some of their innovations and successes at the conference. Three, including OU-Tulsa, Florida International University, and the AT Still College of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona, are in the newest group, and have yet to graduate a class. Their contribution was largely in the creative and innovative methods that they are using to select and enroll and educate students, emphasizing diversity, community-based education, dispersion of educational settings, ambulatory (rather than hospital-based) training, emphasis on primary care and concern for the social determinants of health and health disparities. (A fourth new school, the University of Northern Ontario, in Canada, was also part of this group.)

The 3 other schools were part of the prior wave of new schools created in the 1970s and have had significant social impact, Morehouse University, the Southern Illinois School of Medicine, and the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. These are certainly not the only schools that have made a major commitment to social mission, and perhaps they are not in all respects the perfect exemplars, but they are certainly among the leaders in the field. They are part of an international movement of medical schools that were founded in the same period, to create physicians who would have the skills to care for people (primary care), have the knowledge to do research on community and population health, have the relationships to train and work with people in community settings, and have the intelligence to challenge traditional methods of classroom teaching by increasing clinical and interprofessional training experiences. Representatives from these and other schools described pipeline programs, interprofessional training, dispersion of training sites, innovative curricula, emphasis on primary care, and many other models and efforts.

The bottom line is that outcomes matter, and that judging a school by the impact that it has on the health of the population is the gold standard. Biomedical research contributes important knowledge that may, someday, impact human health, but this can be done in research institutes (see, for example, Karolinska, Rockefeller, Insitute Pasteur, Stowers) and certainly should not determine the core mission of schools focused on training doctors and other health professionals. The steering committee of “Beyond Flexner” is developing key principles that need metrics to assess outcomes; I would suggest the following:
·       Diversity: How does the school produce a health workforce that looks more like American by enrolling, and supporting, a group of students that is truly diverse in ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic origin?
·       Social Determinants of Health: How does the school teach about and train students in, and carry out programs aimed at addressing, the social determinants of health? How does its curriculum and work invert that of the traditional medical school, which focused most on tertiary hospital-care, and emphasize instead ambulatory  care, community based interventions, and interventions on the most important health determinants including housing, safety, education, food, and warmth?
·       Disparities: How does the school, through its programs of education and community intervention, and its research agenda and practices, work to reduce disparities in health care and health among populations?
·       Community Engagement: How does the school identify the community(ies) it serves and how does it involve them in determining the location of training, kinds of programs it carries out, and in identifying the questions that need to be answered by research?

Maybe by the time of the next “Beyond Flexner” conference, every one of our medical education institutions will have bought into these principles and their implementation, and be able to be examples of how it can and should be done.

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