By Dr. Laura-Kathryn Neal, National Dean Colleges and Curriculum, College of Health Sciences, DeVry University and Veronica Calderon, Chief Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity Officer, DeVry University
February 5, 2024 – An increasingly diverse America will need more equitable health outcomes, however, implicit bias among providers and students continues to challenge the healthcare industry's potential to provide equalized care. Thoughtful integration of social justice principles and bias awareness training into healthcare curricula can enable the next generation workforce to become agents of change.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, broad transformations in the nation’s demographics will occur from 2020 to 2060, with the year 2030 marking a "demographic turning point." The U.S. population will start to slow its growth, age considerably, and become more racially and ethnically diverse. The number of people 85 years of age and older is expected to nearly double by 2035; and those who are two or more races are predicted to be the fastest-growing group, followed by Asians and Hispanics.
As of last year, about 60% of organizations had developed health equity strategies in the past five years, as noted by EY's health equity report. "Progress is challenged by systemic drivers that are rooted in a history of overt and covert bias in U.S. society, and by extension, in U.S. medicine," the report also noted.
According to experts, tackling bias in healthcare education is more important than ever. As noted by studies in the National Library of Medicine, bias has substantial effects on patients and healthcare in general. It impacts the quality, safety, and competence of care, as well as interactions between patients and providers, and patients' trust, satisfaction, and approval of treatment. Additionally, systematic reviews of implicit bias show healthcare students and providers to have a negative bias toward people of color, older adults, people with disabilities, women, and people of low socioeconomic status.
However, patients should be allowed to bring their whole selves when they seek care, while healthcare professionals should acknowledge and regard their patients' characteristics when providing care. Equitable healthcare delivers culturally competent care and enhances patient-centered care that accounts for the identity layers that make you who you are. In contrast, implicit bias disregards patients’ underlying needs and perpetuates health inequities.
Social justice in healthcare means delivering high-quality care to all. Yet, most healthcare curricula do not. This is why, higher education institutions can help foster an equal and just society by including social justice principles—equity, access, participation, and human rights—in healthcare curricula.
At DeVry, we include social justice as a vital component of our healthcare curriculum. Our students become familiar with social justice principles through courses that discuss health disparities, access to care, and social determinants of health. In addition to a diverse faculty, we bring awareness and equity into our courses by structuring our curriculum to support activities and discussions focused on best practices for delivering patient-centered care and conveying cultural competency. Through their heightened knowledge and sensitivity, our students develop a nuanced comprehension of the ways in which structural inequities, discrimination, and prejudice affect healthcare and influence outcomes.
Healthcare education should not only provide knowledge and skills, but also promote equity, fairness, and inclusion in the health sector. By including social justice in healthcare, we train students to mirror medicine's foremost principle: treat the root cause, not just the symptoms, enabling them to influence systematic change.
Moreover, social justice is intertwined with higher education’s mission to provide equal opportunities, education, and training that reflect society and reduce barriers to access and equity. And we need better outcomes not just for patients on the receiving end, but also for employees in the healthcare workforce. The ultimate result will be a better healthcare system across the board.