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The Importance of Having a Strong Social Mission

New York, NY

Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) was the first institution to receive the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation Award for Institutional Excellence in Social Mission. We spoke with Valerie Montgomery Rice, MD, president and dean, to learn more about her institution’s efforts. 

In your opinion, what does it truly mean when a school has a strong social mission?
I think about that question all the time. For me, when a school has a strong social mission it is leading the creation and advancement of health equity. I’ve boiled that down to mean giving people what they need, when they need it, and where they need it.

It goes beyond making sure our students have core medical knowledge. It is about ensuring our future clinicians understand the basic needs of the individual, the community, and the entire population. That means considering whether a patient can afford his or her co-pay, to understanding the barriers patients face with adequate housing, access to transportation and the ability to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. These social factors are often the greatest barriers to people being able to reach their optimal health. If a school has a strong social mission, it is embedding these health equity themes into all of its education and training.

What does it take for a school to have a strong social mission today?

When I think back to why MSM was founded, it was founded because there was a big gap in care across the state and across racial lines. We had major health disparities, physician shortages, and a very unbalanced workforce. MSM was founded from a community need with a community focus. Having close ties to your community and engaging that local voice is the first step a school needs to take.

Other important steps schools need to take include:

  • Diversify the student body. We must look at who we are educating and training to ensure the workforce matches our diverse society. This should go beyond race and ethnicity to include cognitive diversity and enrolling students who have different life experiences.
  • Create local partnerships. The social mission can only be realized fully when students are embedded in the community as part of their education and training. This goes beyond the borders of the hospital setting. I believe in community health workers and patient navigators, who are an essential part of the care team. Students should test out these types of roles so they see how the system works at the local setting.
  • Listen. Schools must be learners themselves. This means listening carefully to what the community needs and always having a community voice at the table, whether you’re developing a new classroom experience or a new off-site training program.
  • Research. Schools should move beyond analyzing the gaps that exist in access and health outcomes, and instead focus their efforts on examining interventions to see what works and what doesn’t at the local level. This information will help us scale promising programs and reduce waste. Time is of the essence, so we must be nimble and efficient.

Can you share some examples of programs that are working at MSM?
At MSM we believe a strong primary care workforce safeguards community health and ensures a strong social mission. For over 40 years we’ve been administering a community health course for first year medical students where they go out and do a community needs assessment. This helps them understand from the beginning of their training what the health care landscape looks like and what issues are most important to their patients. This foundational course required strong partnerships with local health clinics and hospitals, and continues to be one of our flagship programs. 

The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is a program designed to make sure communities have access to healthy foods. We realized that many of our diabetes patients were having trouble accessing fresh meals.  Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we launched this initiative in collaboration with MSM’s Prevention Research Center and Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. We partner with local markets and provide technical assistance to store owners to help them order fresh produce, vegetables and meat, and keep shelves stocked.

At the end of the day, MSM’s mission is what guides us. Our institution, and all health professions institutions, should exist to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Having a strong social mission will ensure you stay on track.

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