MSW Students Learn How to Practice as a Team with Other Health Care Professionals

July 10 @ 7:59 pm
By Communications Office

Columbia offers students in health care-related fields a unique opportunity to create connections and work collaboratively.

Health care in the United States has come a long way from the country doctor who administered to a patient’s every need. As anyone who has had firsthand experience with the nation’s hospital system can attest, patient care is managed nowadays by a team of professionals, each with their own area of expertise. Typically, physicians come up with a treatment plan for the patient’s illness or condition, nurses help to administer and monitor that plan, physical therapists assist with rehabilitation, and social workers assess the patient’s social, emotional, environmental, financial, and support needs, ensuring that the services they require are in place before discharge.

In recognition of the importance of interprofessional practice to top-quality health care, Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) established the Columbia Commons Interprofessional Education (IPE) initiative. One of its core programs is an 11-week seminar series, convened each spring, bringing together faculty and students from all ten of Columbia’s professional schools to consider urgent questions about health, illness, and care. Now in its eighth year, the series facilitates opportunities for participants to discuss their respective and shared experiences and aims, and to figure out how to coordinate their roles in the delivery of the best possible health care to seriously ill or injured patients.

The Columbia School of Social Work has Professor of Professional Practice Mary Sormanti to thank for getting involved in the IPE initiative and the seminar series two years ago.

“Most of our graduates are not going to be working in a siloed way, interfacing exclusively with other social workers. That’s not how service-providing organizations operate,” said Sormanti, who speaks from her extensive experience practicing social work in hospital settings. She adds: “All students, regardless of their chosen career path, absolutely need to know how to work with professionals from disciplines other than their own. One of the best ways to achieve that goal is to learn with and from those professionals.”

In addition to serving as the School of Social Work’s representative on the Columbia Commons steering committee, Sormanti facilitated one of the 2019 seminars because of her knowledge about the principles and practice of narrative medicine, which the program relies on to break down the barriers between health-related disciplines.

The Narrative Medicine Advantage

For the past two decades, under the leadership of Dr. Rita Charon, CUIMC has been leading in the development of educational programs for narrative medicine, an interdisciplinary field that brings the narrative skills of radical listening and creativity from the humanities and the arts to address the needs of all who seek and deliver health care. Charon started the IPE program in 2011 with a grant from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation. It has since become a permanent feature of her work. She now leads a new department at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons called the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics, which includes a Division of Narrative Medicine.

According to the IPE website, whereas other universities base their trainings in interprofessional health care practice on teaching each profession’s specific role in clinical situations, Columbia’s programming is grounded in the belief that clinical practice is enhanced if a clinician has the ability “to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness.” That way, the emphasis can be on “healthcare practitioners’ shared values in order to promote efficient and respectful collaboration.”

Sormanti, who in addition to her other degrees has an MS in narrative medicine from Columbia, needs no convincing that the narrative medicine approach is vital in interprofessional education. She says it fosters an exchange of perspectives that can bridge the divide across professions and improve team dynamics. “It’s extremely humanizing, which is so important.”

How It All Works

This past spring, IPE seminar participants had the choice of these four topics:

  • Relationships of Care and the Spaces of Care
  • Aging and End-of-Life
  • Health Care Justice and the Care of the Underserved
  • Spirituality and Healthcare

Each seminar is structured around the core methods of narrative medicine: close reading, writing, and reflecting. Participants are asked to review a work of art—usually literature, but almost any medium can be used—as a group. Next they receive a writing prompt inspired by the art. Finally, they are encouraged to share their writing for group reflection, which allows them to connect on a personal, rather than just a professional, level.

Eight MSW and social work PhD candidates took part in the IPE’s 2019 series. One of them, Sierra Andrea Dunlap Murray (MSW’21), elected to take “Relationships of Care and the Spaces of Care,” which was co-facilitated by Dr. Sormanti and Dr. Michael Devlin, a psychiatrist at CUIMC and the New York Psychiatric Institute.

“The course was fundamentally designed to encourage professional growth through curiosity,” she said. “This would not have been possible without the seminar style layout of the class and the infusion of creative writing. The structure of the course created an intimate environment for vulnerable conversations.”

While IPE can benefit professionals in any health care field and at any stage of their career, Sormanti believes it might be especially valuable for budding social workers, who will soon be facing real-life situations with other members of the health care community who might not recognize the value of the social work contribution.

“These opportunities are practice for them to be able to articulate, ‘here’s what I do as a social worker, here’s the lens I bring, and here’s the added value that I bring to this collaborative effort,’” Sormanti said. “And perhaps most importantly, we stand to learn as much as we bring to the table.”

Dunlap Murray shares Sormanti’s enthusiasm. “This seminar equipped me with a common language to talk with different health care professionals.” Her advice to other social work students is unequivocal: “Take the seminar if you can.”

Further IPE Opportunities

Columbia Commons sponsors occasional IPE educational events throughout the academic year. In April, the Commons presented the second annual Campus-Wide Day of Interprofessional Action, which brings together faculty, staff, and students from all of the health schools “in a groundbreaking commitment towards radical collaboration.” At many of the participating Schools, classes are suspended for the day in hopes that the collective will be able to expand the frontiers of collaborative care in person-centered health.

In the 2017–2018 academic year, the Commons sponsored the Columbia Hotspotting Initiative, an innovative approach to primary care using data to provide high-utilizing patients with personalized, interprofessional care.

The Commons has also sponsored educational presentations on topics such as “Implicit Bias in the Academy.”

If you are a student interested in joining the IPE series, please note that seminar descriptions and the application are usually posted in November on this page. The deadline for submitting applications is mid-December, with accepted students notified about a week later.