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Great Teamwork = Great Solutions
Incorporating Interprofessional Education for Better Health Care, Patient Outcomes

Posted: Oct. 16, 2013

Elizabeth Heitkemper

Students from Biomedical Engineering, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Social Work learning to work as a team.

Improving patient outcomes by reducing errors and solving complex problems is the new reality for health care. According to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, poor communication was the leading root cause of sentinel events (events that result in loss of life or limb) in recent years, and the Institute of Medicine has stated that optimal use of the health professions workforce requires a team effort focused on the common goal of safe, patient-centered care that meets specific patient care needs. In short, improving health care requires teamwork.

It’s not always been easy, however, to incorporate a team approach into health-care settings. In many cases, physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other allied health practitioners have struggled to find a way to work together for the good of the patient.

For The University of Texas at Austin, that’s about to change, thanks to a three-year grant for $1,215,000 from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The funded project “Enhancing the Advanced Nursing Education of Clinical Nurse Specialists through Integration of Care for Patients with Multiple Chronic Conditions Using Interprofessional Education” will enhance the education of Master’s level advanced practice students in the Adult Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program by further integrating interprofessional education (IPE) experiences with medicine, pharmacy and social work into the curriculum to provide integrated, comprehensive, evidenced-based care of persons with multiple chronic conditions, especially in underserved populations.

With its emphasis on multidisciplinary cooperation and communication, IPE is gaining popularity in the education of health-care professionals around the country. Like many of its peers, the UT Austin School of Nursing recognized that learning how to work in teams with other health-care providers shouldn’t begin on the job and decided to incorporate collaborative educational experiences into the nursing curricula. At about the same time, the School joined forces with colleagues across campus to create interprofessional opportunities and events—such as Project Collaborate, a public health-screening event initiated by the College of Pharmacy, and joint research projects with the School of Social Work.

“It’s hard to change after years of doing things a certain way, but we’re deliberately moving away from our academic silos to provide students with the tools they need to work seamlessly in interprofessional teams,” explained Gayle Timmerman, PhD, RN, CNS, FAAN, associate dean for academic affairs at the UT Austin School of Nursing and project director of the HRSA grant. “Health care is complex, and in order to achieve the best outcomes for patients, it’s necessary to bring each discipline’s unique perspective to the table.”

One impetus for laying this foundation was the Core Competencies for Interprofessional Collaborative Practice (PDF) published in 2011 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and other professional organizations. These four competencies — values and ethics, roles and responsibilities, communication, and teams and teamwork — are designed to help providers deal with the complex health and illness problems they face every day by undergirding relations among the professions and with patients, and improving the quality of interprofessional communication.

Dr. Gayle Timmerman with IPE team

Dr. Gayle Timmerman with IPE team.

The first IPE graduate elective for nursing, medicine, pharmacy and social work was taught on the UT Austin campus in fall 2012 by the UT IPE team in conjunction with the University of Texas Southwestern residency program. A second course “Transformative Teams in Health Care” is being taught fall 2013.

“This class not only provided exposure to the training of other health-care professionals, but also gave me a respect for their profession and a greater understanding of their roles, responsibilities and resources,” said nursing student Magdiel Garcia, MSN, RN. “I worked on a team of oncologists, pharmacists, nurses and social workers, and the collective way in which we took care of the patients was amazing. True and effective trust among the team members helped to meet the needs of the patient and care plans.”

Now, with the opening of the Dell Medical School on the UT Austin campus in 2016, students will have unique opportunities to experience IPE. It’s already a strong component of the medical school’s mission statement, which affirms a commitment to “improving human health through excellence in interprofessional and trans-disciplinary education, research, health care and community involvement.” To ensure this, the new institution will foster interprofessional team development to enhance patient safety and improve health-care outcomes.

UT Austin President Bill Powers recently said that having the new medical school as part of the academic campus will create a powerful connection. “Our medical students will be walking distance from some of the most innovative research in the world,” he said. “They will be learning shoulder-to-shoulder with other professionals — nurses, social workers and pharmacists — who will be on their teams in hospitals and clinics as they treat patients. This will be a great place to learn transformative medicine.”

Still, creating and maintaining a smooth-running interprofessional team can be difficult. Without the commitment and leadership of faculty in nursing, pharmacy, medicine and social work integrating interprofessional tools and strategies into their individual curricula, it would be even more challenging. At UT Austin, the team-based approach to health care is already forming the bedrock on which a new generation of students will be taught and establishing a new norm for providing health care in Central Texas and beyond.

“Our goal is to transform health care,” said Timmerman, chairperson for the Dell Medical School IPE subcommittee. “In order to do that, students need us to provide them with the strategies and tools to collaborate successfully. They need to learn each discipline’s unique contributions and where they might overlap, and — most importantly — how to value our differences so that we can provide optimum patient care.”