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Health care professionals must also be experts in public health

Health care professionals must also be experts in public health
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As the U.S. now leads the world in COVID-19 cases, health care in this country has transformed swiftly — in some cases overnight — with thousands of American hospitals responding to the pandemic’s urgent and dire demands. It is a new normal. 

It would be a perilous mistake not to radically change the health care academy — the medical, nursing, health professional and health science colleges — fas well. 

The U.S. has more than 190,000 cases of COVID-19 in 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington D.C.

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More than 4,000 Americans have died from the virus. Globally, approximately 44,000 have died with nearly 880,000 confirmed cases around the world, and new cases are reported every hour.

We will survive this crisis, but we will not and must not be the same. 

As president of one of the few American universities dedicated solely to training health professionals, this unique stretch of history — unprecedented in scope, reach, tragedy and cost — demands a redefined role of the health care academy in shaping the future of health care. 

Institutions educating and training the health care workforce have immediate accountability not only to guide the nation through a terrifying global health crisis but to innovate towards a safer future as an active partner in health policy creation. 

That means giving students and health care practitioners now the tools to improve health care — not one to one — but one too many. 

In a paper published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine’s Catalyst, 13 doctors practicing in the pandemic-strained Bergama hospital in Italy implore for such a change. They write: “Western health care systems have been built around the concept of patient-centered care, but an epidemic requires a change of perspective toward a concept of community-centered care.”

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The health care academy is responding in divergent ways. At a time when all health care personnel are needed, the Association of American Medical Colleges recently suggested a two-week suspension of medical school residents to eliminate patient contact until March 31. 

In New York state, with 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 reported, and 75,000 reported cases, New York University Medical School announced early graduation for seniors, so they could join the workforce immediately. 

Redesigning medical education must translate to a unified commitment not only to improve the health of the patient needing care at the moment but also to embrace social and professional responsibility to act in ways that consider the wellbeing of all.

Rush University contributes with a student body of 2,700 and 800 exceptional graduates each year. But it is not enough to train talented students to become leading health scientists and practitioners armed with the most up-to-date science. 

This crisis demands that the health care professionals of the future must also be experts in improving and advocating for the public’s health. They need to participate fully as equal partners in creating and enacting health policy.

Now and for the future, health care experts need to play meaningful roles in public policy debates, rather than doing their good work, remaining silent and hoping someone at the policy level notices or implements the plans. 

The new normal means intentionally recruiting individuals from diverse and under-represented communities and identities to enroll in health professions colleges. These are students who not only have an aptitude for health sciences and caring for people but also a capacity to think broadly and inclusively about the health of populations.

It means developing curricula that extend beyond normal physiology, disease and health care delivery and into population health, epidemic and pandemic preparedness, health policy, health economics, health law, global health, politics and more. 

And it means redirecting research funding streams to fund innovative approaches to advance understanding of these disciplines to a much greater degree than ever before.

Health care professionals with expertise and experience at the intersection of policy and health must be instrumental in devising a bipartisan approach to reaching solutions to health care challenges that, today, have been contaminated by divisiveness, misinformation and poorly implemented reactions. 

Informed and strategic health care activism is sorely needed; it is not typically taught or even talked about at the health care academy. 

Beginning now, the health care academy must ensure that the next generation of health care leaders has the knowledge and tools not only to effectively react to health crises but also to understand the critical importance of preemptive readiness and preparedness on a large scale. 

As we approach the crest and waning of this pandemic, it is critical to hold educational institutions accountable to make needed changes so that the next time this happens — and it will — the impact on lives and livelihoods is far less gruesome.

COVID-19 has changed the landscape of this country and the world. We will succeed in addressing this health care emergency. But we can’t wait for this calamity to subside before taking action to change how we educate and train health care professionals in order to change the future. 

Sherine Emily Gabriel, M.D., is the president of Rush University & The Robert C. and Naomi T. Borwell Presidential Professor, Chief Academic Officer, Rush University System for Health.