Less than half of internal medicine residency program directors report formal curricula on the topic of health disparities, according to findings of a survey of medical directors and residents across the United States.
Despite recommendations from the Institute of Medicine going back to 2002 calling for increased education on the topic for health care providers, data from a 2012 survey showed that only 17% of internal medicine programs had a health disparities curriculum, wrote, of the Mayo Medical School, Rochester, Minn., and colleagues.
To describe internal medicine residency training programs’ curricula and educational experiences on health disparities and to determine residents’ perceptions of training, the researchers designed a cross-sectional survey study including 227 program directors and 22,723 internal medicine residents. The survey was conducted from August to November 2015.
Overall, 91 program directors (40%) reported a curriculum in health disparities, but only 16 of them described the quality of their education as very good or excellent. In 56% of the programs, outcomes of the curriculum were not measured.
A majority (90%) of the programs included racial/ethnic diversity and socioeconomic status in their curricula, 58% included information about limited English proficiency, and 53% included information about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Reported barriers to curriculum development in 132 programs that did not have a health disparities curriculum included lack of time in the current curriculum, insufficient faculty skill to teach the topic, lack of institutional support, and lack of faculty interest, the researchers noted.
A total of 13,251 residents (70%) reported receiving some training in caring for patients at risk for health disparities over 3 years of training, and 10,494 (80%) of these rated the quality as very good or excellent. “Residents who cared for a larger proportion of underserved patients perceived that they received health disparities training at a higher rate,” the researchers wrote. However, increased care of at-risk populations does not necessarily translate into increased knowledge and skills. “Our finding that residents’ rating of the quality of their training was not associated with the presence of a curriculum in health disparities in their program also raises a concern that perceptions may overestimate the acquisition of needed skills,” they added.
The major limitation of the study was “that residents were not asked directly if they were exposed to a curriculum in health disparities but rather if they received training in the care of patients who would be at risk, which raises the concern that we cannot distinguish between their recognition of a formal and informal curriculum,” the researchers noted. In addition, the survey could not confirm that program directors were aware of all training. “Furthermore, because the survey items were embedded in larger program director survey, we were limited in the ability to ask them to define more specifically the components of their health disparities curricula,” they wrote.
However, the results were strengthened by the large and comprehensive study population, and highlight not only the need for standardized health disparities curricula, but also the need for research to determine the most effective domains for such curricula in graduate medical education, they emphasized.
“There are opportunities to explore partnerships among residencies, institutional clinical practices, and communities for productive collaborations around disparities-related quality improvement projects to address gaps in health care that are specific to the populations they serve,” they concluded.
The surveys were conducted in 2015 and the comparative work in 2018, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent increased concerns about disparities in health care, Dr. Dupras said in an interview.
“We conducted the survey because we recognized that health disparities were still prevalent in our society despite calls to improve the education of our learners to address them. We wanted to determine what our programs were providing for educational curriculum and what our learners were experiencing,” she said.
“We did not know what the surveys would show, so I cannot say that we were surprised by the findings,” said Dr. Dupras. “One of the challenges in interpreting our results is inherent in studies that rely on surveys. We cannot know how those filling out the surveys interpret the questions.” The study results yield several messages.
“First, residency training programs have opportunities to do a better job in developing educational opportunities related to health disparities; second, residents learn in the context of care and we must optimize education around these experiences; third, every patient is different. It is time to move towards cultural humility, since the risk for disparities is not associated with one patient characteristic, but composed of multiple factors,” she said.
“Given that 5 years has passed since our original survey, it would be important to repeat the survey and consider expanding it to include other training programs that provide frontline care, such as family medicine and pediatrics,” Dr. Dupras noted.
Dr. Dupras and colleagues had no financial conflicts to disclose.
SOURCE: Dupras DM et al. JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Aug 10. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.12757.