Education Leadership Conference

Psychologists need to gain a better understanding of the basic biological sciences if they want to play a bigger role in teaching medical students, and participate in research and treatment within the health care system, said John Carr, PhD, a panelist at the Education Leadership Conference (ELC).

Carr, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who served as chair of psychiatry at the university's medical school, made his remarks during a panel discussion on psychology's role in the education of other health professions.

Carr noted that medical schools are shifting from being organized around biologically based departments to multidisciplinary teams, and that research funded by the National Institutes of Health is demanding a more interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach. Those changes create an opportunity for psychology to play a greater role in medical education and health research, Carr said.

"What are the implications of these changes to psychology? The failure to make psychology relevant to the biological foundations of medicine will result in psychology becoming minimally relevant to medical education and practice," he said.

For example, a psychologist who wants to work in an interdisciplinary treatment program targeting cancer should bring expertise about some of the behavioral factors in the onset of cancer--but should know something about oncology and immune system functioning, too, Carr said.

"Certainly, to be able to understand and teach about these subjects, it is fundamental that we have some of this basic knowledge," said Carr, citing a need for clinical health psychologists to learn more about anatomy, physiology and pharmacology.

Other psychologists at the ELC discussed ways psychologists train health professionals at pharmacy programs, public health programs and dentistry schools.

For students studying to become pharmacists, for example, psychology has a lot to teach about patient decision-making, social support and coping and self-care, said Betty Chewning, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Pharmacy. For instance, research has found that asking a patient, "Any questions?" when they pick up a prescription decreases the likelihood that a patient will actually ask a question. By contrast, asking, "What questions do you have?" results in more interaction between patient and pharmacist, she said.

In dentistry, psychologists can teach dental students how to brush and floss, said Alan Glaros, PhD, an associate dean and professor at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.

Psychologists can also impart important communication lessons on how to develop a rapport with patients--whether it's dealing with children who won't sit still in the chair or adults who become anxious when faced with a dental appointment, Glaros said.

"Dental schools are great places to study health-related behaviors, and they can be great training sites for psychology students," he said.

After the panelists had spoken, Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate, pointed out that more needs to be done to make education and training opportunities available for psychologists within academic health centers.

"We're welcome, but we're welcome to train other disciplines and professions, and my concern is we're not preparing our own people to do this kind of work," said Belar.

Overall, only about 10 percent of psychology interns train in academic health science centers--those medical schools with organized health-delivery systems, such as a hospital, on site. And, out of 375 accredited clinical psychology doctoral programs, only 10 are located in academic health science centers, Belar said.

To get psychology more actively involved in health care training issues, APA's Board of Directors recently authorized membership in the Association of Academic Health Centers (AAHC), she said. A group composed of medical schools and health care professional and educational associations, AAHC seeks to provide a voice for the different groups involved in the education and training of the nation's health work force.

Overall, APA's goal is obtaining more opportunities for psychologists to train alongside other health care scientists and practitioners--a practice that will better prepare them to work in health research and services, Belar said.

"Outside of some of the specific programs noted, we have a long way to go," she said.