Interprofessional education is becoming an increasingly popular component of the medical school curriculum in the United States. Such programs within medicine are becoming more widely accepted as an effective way of reducing medical errors and improving the healthcare system.
Essentially, the term refers to situations when students from two or more areas of medicine or social care learn together during their professional training. The objective is to cultivate collaborative practice through learning about, from, and with each other. Developing good teamwork skills is crucial in modern health care – these skills strengthen health systems and improves outcomes. Interprofessional education allows students to gain insight into their relationship with other health professionals; their differing roles and responsibilities; and the significance on the overall care of individuals, families, and communities. Greater communication and collaboration among professions can also help improve patient safety.
In a 2010 report, the World Health Organization stated, "Interprofessional education is an opportunity to not only change the way that we think about educating future health workers, but is an opportunity to step back and reconsider the traditional means of healthcare delivery." This is "not just a change in educational practices, but a change in the culture of medicine and healthcare."
This type of shared learning has been present for several decades in US health professions’ education programs, starting with conferences on cross-professional practice and education in the 1970s. By the 1990s many national centers and collaboratives had been established, such as the American Interprofessional Health Collaborative (AIHC).
Based at the University of Minnesota, the AIHC believes the approach must be expanded. "In many respects, health professions education remains isolated from practice realities, and profession-specific learning does not prepare future and current health professionals for working together," it states. "We must transcend boundaries to connect 'traditional' health professions, educators, new and emerging health and care providers, care coordinators, administrators of healthcare delivery and payment systems, and policy-makers in partnership with patients, communities, and populations."
There is debate, however, about the effectiveness of interprofessional education and its ability to improve collaborative practice. A review of the research conducted in several countries by Dr. Cornelia Mahler and colleagues suggests that while this education "leads to better understanding" and "the satisfaction with one's own profession increases," it also highlights the importance of keeping the learning groups as small as possible and to have the teaching focus strongly on practice.
"Coordinating the different curricula proved difficult," warn the reviewers. Among the professional groups analyzed were dentists, physicians, nursing staff, pharmacists, social workers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, midwives, and radiographers. "All of the health professions addressed in these studies agree on the necessity of collaboration," Mahler et al state, "but these same professions differ on how to implement it. Nevertheless, individual studies prove shorter hospital stays for patients and a reduced need for medication if interprofessional cooperation takes place in teams in the form of regular coordination and case conferencing.
"Clear structures in respect to responsibilities in the therapy setting also appear to be important," they add. "The conclusion drawn by almost all of the studies is that it is the patient who ultimately profits from improved cooperation among and coordination of all the professions in the healthcare system." The authors, however, call for further reliable research in this area.
Overall, as the 2010 WHO report states, "After almost 50 years of enquiry, the World Health Organization and its partners acknowledge that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that effective interprofessional education enables effective collaborative practice."
WHO's Framework for Action on Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Practice
Walkenhorst U, Mahler C, Aistleithner R, et al. Position statement GMA Comittee - "Interprofessional Education for the Health Care Professions". GMS Z Med Ausbild 2015;32:Doc22. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4446653/