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Improving Medical Education: Enhancing the Behavioral and Social Science Content of Medical School Curricula
1976; Everson et al., 1996; Frasure-Smith et al., 1993; Kawachi et al., 1996; Leserman et al., 2000; Mayne et al., 1996; Orth-Gomer et al., 1993). In the case of heart disease, for example, psychosocial stress appears to contribute directly to atherosclerotic processes by narrowing blood vessels, thus restricting circulation (Bairey Merz et al., 2002; Williams et al., 1991).
Theories underlying behavioral interventions aimed at modifying disease course are based on the assumptions that behavioral and psychosocial influences on disease course are modifiable and that curtailing unhealthy practices will slow disease progression or minimize the recurrence of disease following treatment (IOM, 2000). Understanding that behavior can be changed and that proven methods are available to facilitate such change allows physicians to provide optimal interventions—behavioral and nonbehavioral—to improve the health of patients. Identifying personal, familial, social, and environmental factors that may affect a patient’s health enables physicians to provide better, more patient-centered care (IOM, 2001a, 2003a). In addition, physicians must be able to recognize their own personal and social biases and perceptions to best serve the needs of their patients.
Although the scientific evidence linking biological, behavioral, psychological, and social variables to health, illness, and disease is impressive, the translation and incorporation of this knowledge into standard medical practice appear to have been less than successful. To make measurable improvements in the health of Americans, physicians must be equipped with the knowledge and skills from the behavioral and social sciences needed to recognize, understand, and effectively respond to patients as individuals, not just to their symptoms. Sobel (2000:393), an expert in mind–body health care, notes that “more and more studies point to simple, safe and relatively inexpensive interventions that can improve health outcomes and reduce the need for more expensive medical treatments. Far from a new miracle drug or medical technology, the treatment is simply the targeted use of mind–body and behavioral medicine interventions in a medical setting.” Thus, physicians with an understanding of disease causation that extends beyond biomedical approaches are more likely to see better intervention outcomes than have been achieved to date (IOM, 2000).
A number of demographic factors in the United States also underscore the need for more attention to the behavioral and social components of health. First, the proportion of the population aged 65 and over is expected to grow by 57 percent by 2030 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996), and with Americans now having an average life expectancy of 77 years (NCHS, 2003b), physicians need the knowledge and skills to care for this aging population. To this end, they must understand the interplay of social and behavioral factors (e.g., diet, exercise, and familial and social support) and the role these factors play in delaying or preventing the onset of disease and slowing its progression. Physicians also need to have been trained in pain management and means of improving quality-of-life mea-