Course opens students' eyes, minds about AIDS

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

A team of UBC faculty and community health specialists are creating a new way to teach students about HIV/AIDS.

Called the Interprofessional Elective in HIV/AIDS Care, the pilot project is the only one in Canada to combine interdisciplinary classroom study with clinical experience in HIV/AIDS.

"No-one's done an elective like this before," says Dr. Andrew Chalmers, associate dean of Medicine. "But with the spread of this infection we desperately need professionals for the future."

The project has two aims: to prepare students in the health-care professions to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its consequences, both biological and social, and to develop a model for interprofessional learning.

Pharmaceutical Sciences student Fleur Zadka was one of 11 third- and fourth-year students from her faculty and the School of Nursing and Faculty of Medicine who took the three-week-long pilot course. To her, exposure to a variety of instructors was a key part of the experience.

"We talked to aboriginal spiritual leaders, transgendered people and natural medicine practitioners," she says. "Everyone really cared about the topic. Those presentations came from the heart."

Learning with other health science students was also an advantage, says Zadka.

"We asked each other questions and learned the dilemmas we face in our professions."

Hearing about addicts shooting up 20 times a day and the insensitive treatment some patients received from health-care workers made Zadka confront the magnitude of the problems in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"Students were able to put a face to this illness," says Sharon McKinnon, a lecturer in Pharmaceutical Sciences and a member of the course design team. "Also, being exposed to the perspectives of other health science students encouraged them to focus on the patient, rather than one particular drug or diagnostic test."

Health sciences faculty, community health workers and members of AIDS Vancouver collaborated to design the course.

Interprofessional student teams and teaching, mentors for discipline-specific learning, case-based learning and feedback or reflective sessions were key features of the pilot.

Faculty included front-line practitioners who taught in classrooms and clinical placements.

"Because the epidemic is dynamic and unstable, treatment issues are complex. Having practitioners as teachers is one way to ensure that we're offering current information," says Irene Goldstone of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. She and Nursing Prof. Anne Wyness designed the first course on HIV/AIDS offered by a Canadian university in 1993. It provided the foundation for the new pilot interprofessional program which they also helped design.

Students completed a satisfaction survey at the end of the course and were tested before and after on content knowledge and confidence in working with patients. Students also talked about their experiences and their feelings in the reflective learning sessions.

"Students' perception of HIV/AIDS as an individual illness changed," says Terry Trussler, the research consultant who evaluated the program. "By the end of the course, they understood it as a complex social issue."

The course is a collaborative project of UBC and the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and AIDS Vancouver.

It was one of four projects funded by the National HIV/AIDS Strategy of Health Canada. Memorial and McGill universities and the University of Montreal are all exploring ways to teach students about the unique challenges of HIV/AIDS care.

The elective will be offered again in the summer and expanded to include social work students. It will also be lengthened to six weeks to reduce its intensity and clinical experiences will offer more exposure to working interprofessional teams. A greater emphasis on case-based learning is planned and the interprofessional content will be expanded.

The design team is also looking for funding to ensure the course is sustained in the curriculum.

"We want to use this course to further the movement toward interprofessional education that involves the community," says Wyness. "We want to build a Canadian model."