An Innovative Approach to Community-Centric Interprofessional Education

By:  Christian R. Ketel (@crketel)

The Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance (MVA), established in 1999, pioneers transformative initiatives within the ever-evolving domain of interprofessional education. The MVA strives to dissolve health disparities by weaving potent alliances between Meharry Medical College (MMC), Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), and the broader community. Their mission is steadfast in enriching research and addressing health disparities, with a vision rooted in inter-institutional collaborations, transformative research, and bi-directional community engagement.

The Interinstitutional and Interprofessional Student Program, a cornerstone effort by the MVA, offers health students in Nashville a unique community-engaged experience by intertwining inter-professional education (IPE) with community benefits. This initiative aims to foster inter-professional skills, allowing students from varied health backgrounds to collaborate with community stakeholders, addressing the social determinants of health. The program accepted students from various allied health professions, including nursing (undergraduate and graduate levels), medicine, dentistry, social work, public health, occupation therapy, physical therapy, speech pathology, dietician, and pharmacy from local colleges and universities in Nashville.

Central to this endeavor is a partnership among notable academic institutions: Meharry Medical College’s commitment to health equity, VUMC’s medical expertise, Vanderbilt University’s research prowess, Tennessee State University’s academic diversity, Belmont University’s excellence in health sciences, and Lipscomb University’s ethos of community service. Furthermore, pivotal to the program’s success are partnerships with community service organizations such as Urban Housing Solutions, Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency of Nashville, Dismas House, Our Place Nashville, and the Special Olympics, ensuring the MVA’s projects remain grounded in real-world needs and create significant impact. Having initiated this community-centric approach in the 2015-2016 academic year, the MVA further refined this venture by splitting it into a two-tiered curriculum based on traditional academic semesters: the Fall semester being an instructive phase, rich with didactic sessions, while the Spring semester revolved around generating tangible community deliverables.

The Fall sessions focus on team-building, social and systematic determinants of health, project design, and responsible community engagement. In the first session, students engage in activities and deep discussions highlighting implicit personal biases. It is crucial to begin on a solid foundation before students engage with historically marginalized populations to reduce biases during the project and throughout their careers.1 The second session includes a rich team-based poverty simulation that provides students a glimpse into the possible lived experience of those living in under-resourced communities. This session builds on the implicit bias session by providing a simulated experience in one aspect of marginalization: socioeconomic insecurity. This step is critical to expose future providers to society’s individual and systemic disparities.2 The third session takes an unexpected turn for students. In this session, students must escape complex scenarios using their combined professional resources. The life of a small child with asthma is at stake if they do not escape! Escape game simulations and other gamification interventions have proven to be excellent pedagogical tools for deep learning while being highly satisfactory learning experiences.3 Last, the fourth session directly connects the student with a genuine community leader at one of our community partner organizations. In this session, students develop a project to deliver a real-world solution to a real-world community problem designed and implemented in the Spring semester. This strategy has been a powerful tool for this and similar programs to bridge the gap between didactic activities and practical impacts for students, faculty, and the larger community.4-6

Beyond the collaboration with community service organizations, the program’s heartbeat is notably the tangible deliverables crafted by the student participants. Addressing the intricate policy issues surrounding incarceration and re-entry, students delve deep into the societal occurrences to provide comprehensive insights. Furthermore, they create health and hygiene education modules tailored for those facing homelessness, recognizing the paramount importance of basic health knowledge in these vulnerable populations. In areas where resources are scant, students have championed initiatives on preparing healthy foods, ensuring nutritional well-being is not compromised. To ensure the program’s continued growth and reach, students have also produced promotional media designed to recruit future participants and stakeholders effectively. These student-led endeavors bridge the gap between academic learning and on-ground community challenges, reinforcing the program’s core mission.

Though students thrived in this setting, showcasing an evident increase in collaborative adeptness, the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large. The IPE program embraced an all-digital format for its academic and community-focused activities to adapt to the challenge. However, as the future approaches, the MVA is transitioning back to face-to-face interactions, albeit with a newfound appreciation for hybrid models that harmoniously blend virtual and in-person engagements. Whether online or in person, the program’s central tenet revolves around endowing students with theoretical knowledge and practical application in interprofessional dynamics, focusing on crafting solutions tailor-made for the community.

In terms of outcomes, students are set on a trajectory to refine their collaborative problem-solving skills, acquaint themselves with varied team dynamics, and internalize the indispensable value of teamwork. On the other hand, faculty members aim to forge an environment conducive to interprofessional dialogues, fostering avenues for academic exploration. For the community at large, the goals are clear-cut: leverage external knowledge to address community challenges and uplift the comprehensive well-being of Nashville’s residents.

The program’s methodology has several moving parts but is not overly complex. Its carefully charted roadmap commences with the formation of balanced student cohorts, followed by a rigorous 10-hour training regimen in the Fall. Come Spring, the emphasis shifts to crafting invaluable community resources and tools. To ensure a constant trajectory of improvement, the MVA actively gathers feedback through sophisticated tools, all of which find secure storage within Vanderbilt’s REDCap platform. The prevailing analytical focus might hinge on descriptive statistics, but it lays a robust groundwork for future in-depth analyses.

The MVA’s IPE program is a paragon in inter-professional collaboration, underscoring the profound impact achievable when academic endeavors meet community aspirations. Let us all remain committed to such initiatives, shaping the future contours of community-driven education and practice.

About the author: Christian R. Ketel, DNP, RN, FNAP, is a renowned figure in nursing, possessing a rich background in nursing practice, health systems leadership, and community healthcare. As an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, he focuses on healthcare quality improvement, informatics, and the guidance of interprofessional teams. Beyond academia, Dr. Ketel co-leads the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance’s Interprofessional Learning Program, addressing social and economic disparities. His commitment to community health is evident in his initiatives like the Vanderbilt Mobile Vaccine Program, which vaccinated over 10,000 individuals from underserved areas, and the Urban Housing Solutions Community Resiliency Hub, offering critical resources to those in need. As an author, Dr. Ketel’s works span primary care, suicidality, and interprofessional cooperation, and he has been instrumental in garnering and executing over $20 million in grants for pivotal community health projects. He is affiliated with several esteemed institutions, including the National Academies of Practice and the American Nurse Association.


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