Interprofessional education builds stronger health care teams, saves lives

The complexity of health care requires that different medical specialists interact with each other multiple times a day to determine the care of a single patient, says Meg Zomorodi. 

A woman speaks from a desk
Meg Zomorodi. Clinical associate professor in the School of Nursing. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine estimated that more than 250,000 Americans die from medical errors each year.

Meg Zomorodi, a clinical associate professor in the School of Nursing, knows those numbers all too well.

Her own mother, who worked as an emergency room nurse at UNC Hospitals, died in 2002 following an operation to remove her gallbladder. Her mother complained about unbearable pain, Zomorodi said, but health care professionals dismissed it as lingering pain from the surgery.  

Had health care professionals listened to her mother’s complaints more closely, Zomorodi believes, they might have discovered that her pain stemmed from an infection of a bile duct that was cut during the operation. And they might have been able to treat it in time to save her. Instead, she passed away three days later in an intensive care unit.

A lasting lesson

When her mother died, Zomorodi was a 22-year-old Carolina graduate just beginning her own career as a nurse.

Zomorodi said her mother’s death taught her about the glaring need for health care professionals to do a better job of listening to their patients — and to each other. She continues to promote that simple idea as a means to reduce medical errors — and save lives — as her lifelong mission.

That mission motivated Zomorodi to return to Carolina to complete her doctorate in nursing and put her on the path that led last January to her appointment as assistant provost in the newly formed Office for Interprofessional Education and Practice.

In 2010, the World Health Organization defined interprofessional education as the result when two or more professions “learn from, with and about each other in order to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes.”

Building a shared vision

Zomorodi said there are many examples of interprofessional collaboration at Carolina, which she describes as the practice of learning in teams with students from other health professions. The creation of the office, however, created an opportunity to align these activities to maximize their impact and allow for a sustainable program that promotes that practice across all participating schools and departments, she said.

“Between January and July, I asked all the deans who were involved what they wanted to see the office become and how they would measure its success,” Zomorodi said.

Zomorodi drew from their input to establish interprofessional education objectives that she presented to the office’s board of directors in July.

The office’s mission ties to The Blueprint for Next, the University’s strategic framework, that seeks to meet the imperative for learning that is personalized, experiential, collaborative and data-literate.

“The only way this is going to work is if we’re offering a clear, consistent message and we’re all sharing the same vision. Everything we do maps to The Blueprint for Next,” Zomorodi said.

Zomorodi credits Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin for being “the visionary who wanted to add the schools of business and education into the mix.” Their inclusion distinguishes Carolina’s interprofessional education office from similar offices that have been established throughout the country.

The schools of medicine, nursing, public health, pharmacy, dentistry and social work participate in interprofessional education and so does the department of allied health and the health sciences library, where the Office for Interprofessional Education and Practice is housed.

Learning from each other

The complexity of health care requires that different medical specialists interact with each other multiple times a day to determine the care of a single patient, Zomorodi said. 

“The office seeks to create opportunities for students to begin those interactions with other health care professionals as an essential part of their education at Carolina,” Zomorodi said. “Bringing in the Schools of Business and Education allow for us to tackle complex health problems to make a collective impact on the health of a population.”

For example, a discussion at a provost’s meeting this summer led to the realization that College of Arts & Sciences students considering a career in the health field needed a way to learn more about the array of professions before committing to one.

To respond to that need, Zomorodi partnered with Jean DeSaix, a longtime biology professor, to develop a course that could expose students to a variety of health professions, while emphasizing ways health care teams work together.

DeSaix organized the course, which started in October, and serves as the course coordinator, but guest speakers form the heart of the course, health care professionals who share with students the rewards and challenges of their respective professions. 

In addition, a group of graduate students in specific health care professions — called “near-peer mentors” — make themselves available to chat with students outside of class about their respective professions.

“Even if students are not sure what profession they want to pursue, it is important for them to know about all the other professions who will one day be their team members,” Zomorodi said. 

She hopes this course and others to follow will produce a different culture that fosters better communication among the array of health care professionals responsible for providing patient care.

“Our biggest change agents are our students,” Zomorodi said.