COVID-19 response shows power of collaboration in UW health sciences

The Simulation Center, which provides hands-on training for nursing students (pictured), became the site of vaccination boot camps for volunteers across all UW health sciences disciplines. (Photo by Mark Stone)

Early in 2021, around the anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in Washington state, health-care workers, mentally and physically exhausted after a year like no other, saw a new train barreling toward them: the need to vaccinate as many people as possible, as rapidly as possible.

Ask anyone in the UW’s top-ranked health sciences schools and they’ll tell you it quickly became clear that this effort was going to be an all-hands-on-deck affair. UW School of Nursing Director of Simulation Jocelyn Ludlow—who had, like many faculty and students, been volunteering at those frenzied early drive-through vaccination events—recognized the need for more widespread training to inoculate people efficiently. On February 22, she held her first vaccination boot camp.

Originally designed to prep nursing students, the training quickly expanded to bring together volunteers from the schools of medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, social work and public health—both students and faculty, current and retired—to get shots in arms. It was a perfect example of how collaboration across health-care disciplines leads to better outcomes for patients, something the UW has championed for decades.

“It was bustling with activity and a sense of urgency,” Ludlow says. “The health sciences students were an untapped resource—they were eager to help and grateful for the opportunity to practice giving vaccinations before volunteering.”

The boot camp was a pragmatic solution that illustrated the profound benefits of interprofessional education (IPE). “It has been so great to see all the disciplines come together to learn how to safely administer vaccines,” Ludlow notes, “while sharing their own experiences and strengths from their practice areas.”

Six schools, one purpose

A new Health Sciences Education Building, opening in 2022, will foster collaboration among all six health sciences schools.

The University’s commitment to IPE will be manifest in a new building that promotes even more collaboration across disciplines. “Health care today is about much more than how we treat injuries and illnesses,” says School of Nursing Executive Dean Azita Emami, speaking about the new UW Health Sciences Education Building (HSEB). “It’s about how health-care professionals can achieve better patient outcomes by working as a professional team rather than isolated individuals.”

Currently under construction, the HSEB is a four-story, 100,000-square-foot, $100-million embodiment of IPE. Though the technology of the space is tantalizing—virtual and augmented reality, a state-of-the-art anatomy lab, remote learning access—the mission first and foremost is to encourage collaboration and interaction among students and faculty of all six UW health sciences schools: dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and social work.

The HSEB will be “more than just a building with classrooms and labs, or a response to the need for larger buildings,” Emami says. “It’s a reflection of an important and profound shift in our perspective in educating the next generation of health-care professionals.”

A culture of collaboration

The UW’s history with IPE goes back to 1997, when the Center for Health Sciences Interprofessional Education, Research and Practice (CHSIE) was formed to improve patient care through a collaborative approach to health-care education. The center began by simply bringing students together for shared courses, but much of the time was spent facing the lectern rather than interacting with other students, explains Peggy Odegard, associate dean for professional pharmacy education and an IPE liaison to the academic associate deans in the health sciences. The faculty quickly reorganized to encourage students to interact across disciplines, sharing ideas and discussing cases as teams. After all, as Odegard says, IPE means learning “about, with and from each other.”

The about part may seem obvious, but Odegard says it’s been eye-opening watching, for example, a medical student suddenly understand—and respect—the job requirements and skills of a pharmacy student. When that clicks into place, and the students have sat with each other in classrooms as they study subjects relating to both professions, they’re better prepared to learn from one another, particularly in real-world simulations where teamwork is essential.

That teamwork, says Odegard, sparks the “aha” moments—where students see how they can give better care as a group than as individuals. “At the UW, you really feel a culture of collaboration, and that’s given us an advantage in interprofessional education,” she notes. “This is how we work together—this is just how we do things.”

Scheduled for completion in May 2022, the new building will educate students in a range of cross-disciplinary curricula, from basics like taking blood pressure and assessing geriatric health to making shared decisions and working to end racism in clinical care—and, yes, vaccine training. Odegard notes the benefits to learning emotionally charged topics (like assessing risks of suicide, or responding to child or elder abuse) together, training students for these nuanced interprofessional work situations.

But IPE is more than just classroom curricula. The other integral component, according to CHSIE director of operations Tracy Brazg, is community engagement—embodied in the mobile health outreach van launched last spring. The Sprinter, a van outfitted with everything you’d find in a clinic, is designed to meet populations where they are, with cross-disciplinary teams of student volunteers.

With the Sprinter, students from a variety of fields can train “out in the community, to experience real-life application of things they’re learning in the classroom,” says Brazg. “It’s a literal vehicle for collaboration.”

Better together

As a family physician working in Idaho, Suzanne Allen has experienced firsthand how collaborative care benefits professional practice. Allen, UW Medicine vice dean for academic, rural and regional affairs, works alongside pharmacists, social workers, dieticians and other health professionals to treat patients at a community health center. The successes she has experienced—like the transformation she’s seen in patients previously reluctant to seek care—she credits to not just her own hard work but to the efforts of the team.

“I alone don’t have everything a patient needs,” Allen says. “[I’m a better physician] because I have other health professionals around me that help me provide care to these patients. I could not have done this on my own.”

That conviction—we’re better together—is at the heart of so much of the UW’s work in the community, from COVID vaccine programs to training tomorrow’s health professionals in the new HSEB.

“Team-based care has changed the face of medicine: the number of errors, the overall quality of care,” says Anne Hirsch, School of Nursing associate dean for academic affairs, who’s been active in vaccination efforts. “But you can’t expect graduates to embrace team-based care if they [weren’t educated in] that. We’re really blessed with having all the sciences together—it allows cross-fertilization and synergy. The biggest outcome is high-quality patient care. That’s the ultimate goal.”