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The cultural and mental health skills that medical and health science students need in today’s world

The cultural and mental health skills that medical and health science students need in today’s world

From memorizing facts about illnesses to learning how to perform procedures, every medical and health science university offers curricula and opportunities to ensure that its students hone their hard skills.

But as our world moves past the pandemic and patient populations increase in diversity, those skills should only be part of a healthcare professional’s education.

“A complete and competent physician is not only skilled in the hard sciences associated with anatomy, chemistry, and biology, but just as importantly, they have the desire and knowledge for cultural competence and cultural humility, so as to treat a patient’s body, mind, and spirit,” says Jeffrey R. Gardere, PhD, board certified clinical psychologist and an associate professor and course director at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine (TouroCOM) in New York City and Middletown, NY.

Simply put, he says, a modern medical school education is incomplete if it does not include training on these other skills. Read on to learn why, and find out how Touro University is incorporating them across their various campuses.

Why is it more important than ever for health care students to be culturally competent?

“Without having the cultural context from which health and illness is created, maintained, or even cured, health care students will develop a ‘one size fits all’ approach to understanding and treating their patients. This will result in a lack of connection between the physician and the patient, less patient satisfaction, as well as less effective medical treatment,” says Dr. Gardere.

To that end, TouroCOM has made it mandatory for their Master of Science and first-year medical students to take didactic and experiential courses in cultural competence and cultural sensitivity. “Interprofessional exercises are also carried out yearly at TouroCOM Harlem so that the different medical professions—including pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, and medicine—work as a team to treat an underrepresented minority patient in a culturally competent manner,” he explains. “This interprofessional team, which will soon include the Touro’s new Doctor of Psychology program and Touro’s Physician’s Assistant program, is made up of diverse races and cultures who learn from one another as professional students and as a community.”

What about mental health? Why should all health care students need to know how to address mental health-related situations?

According to the World Health Organization, there is no health without mental health, says Dr. Gardere. “One is dependent on the other.”

That’s why master’s and first-year DO students at Touro, in their cultural competence courses, learn about the social determinants of health—as well as the importance of advocating for lifestyle changes in their patients through psychology and public health— to mitigate or even prevent disease and/or disease transmission. In addition, second-year medical students are required to take a TouroCom Behavioral Medicine course, where they learn about health psychology and psychiatry.

Why will students need to prioritize their own mental health in their future careers?

“Due to COVID, we are experiencing a health and mental health crisis in our world and in the United States,” says Dr. Gardere. “Medical and other health students are on the frontline fighting the virus, illness, and the other social iterations of disease. There are not enough doctors to care for the sheer number of patients in need. Therefore, burnout is a major issue in the health profession. “To stay in the struggle and be effective, and maintain empathy”, he says, “it’s important for our clinicians to stay strong in body and mind”.

“In the cultural competence courses, we discuss self-care as a tenant of the sustainability of medical service. We also teach students to be role models in getting mental health care, to smash the stigma that keeps their patients from discussing or getting help for their mental health challenges.”

For more information on Touro University and its cultural competency training, visit