Medical School course improves future doctors’ cultural awareness

Brad Unangst

First-year University Medical School students Endrea Curry and Maisha Barnes know the importance of cultural diversity.

After spending one day per week in the community centers and clinics of Minneapolis’ diverse neighborhoods, Curry and Barnes said they’ve learned a lot about interacting with the Hispanic, Hmong and Somali cultures, and also their own, African.

Curry and Barnes are participating in a Medical School course designed to teach doctors to use culture as a resource in providing better minority health care.

“We call it a curriculum threat of culture and health,” said Dr. Sara Axtell, a Medical School professor in charge of the Physician and Society course.

The two-semester class was integrated into the curriculum four years ago. Starting next year, it will expand into a two-year course all freshman Medical School students are required to take, said Douglas Wangensteen, Medical School pre-clinical education director.

“We think it’s important for medical students to get this up front in medical school health care,” Wangensteen said.

Students spend time in community outreach programs running through simulations that teach them to interact with culturally diverse patients.

The Powderhorn Community Wellness Center in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood allows up to seven students per semester to experience a variety of cultures, preparing them for future encounters.

“When (students) come here, they don’t get to do a clinical experience right away,” said Atum Azzahir, executive director of the center. “They choose to learn about different cultures. They choose to learn about how cultures think about health.”

Azzahir said students have the opportunity to pose questions to the center’s staff to help them better understand how to deal with the rifts between cultures.

The students can process the entire experience and investigate what they did right and wrong in a practice situation before performing on a real patient, Azzahir said.

Curry and Barnes said they are grateful for their experiences this year.

“The things I learned I can apply to my own culture,” Barnes said.

Curry said the experience was important for her in understanding cultural differences.

“I encourage more students to get involved in community advocacy,” she said. “Especially for minorities who need to see students active in their own communities.”

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