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J Gen Intern Med. 2008 July; 23(7): 1028–1032.
Published online 2008 July 10. doi:  10.1007/s11606-008-0584-2
PMCID: PMC2517917

Innovative Health Care Disparities Curriculum for Incoming Medical Students

Monica B. Vela, MD,corresponding author1 Karen E. Kim, MD,2 Hui Tang, MS, MS,3 and Marshall H. Chin, MD, MPH1



1) To pilot a health disparities curriculum for incoming first year medical students and evaluate changes in knowledge. 2) To help students become aware of personal biases regarding racial and ethnic minorities. 3) To inspire students to commit to serving indigent populations.


First year students participated in a 5-day elective course held before orientation week. The course used the curricular goals that had been developed by the Society of General Internal Medicine Health Disparities Task Force. Thirty-two faculty members from multiple institutions and different disciplinary backgrounds taught the course. Teaching modalities included didactic lectures, small group discussions, off-site expeditions to local free clinics, community hospitals and clinics, and student-led poster session workshops. The course was evaluated by pre-post surveys.


Sixty-four students (60% of matriculating class) participated. Survey response rates were 97–100%. Students’ factual knowledge (76 to 89%, p < .0009) about health disparities and abilities to address disparities issues improved after the course. This curriculum received the highest rating of any course at the medical school (overall mean 4.9, 1 = poor, 5 = excellent).


This innovative course provided students an opportunity for learning and exploration of a comprehensive curriculum on health disparities at a critical formative time.

KEY WORDS: health disparities, curriculum, education, medical students, underserved


Health care disparities in the quality of care and clinical outcomes are important national problems, and there is a critical need to develop innovative curricula to teach medical students about these issues.1,2 Key medical professional organizations like the Institute of Medicine and educational accreditation agencies, including the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), recommend training for health care professionals in the broad issues of health disparities.35 However, there is currently no consensus regarding the best timing, setting or teaching modalities to effect changes in attitudes, behaviors, and skills.6,7 Moreover, the major training focus has been on cultural competency, not the broader issue of disparities.

A systematic review of cultural competency education programs shows that they improve provider attitudes, knowledge, and skills regarding cultural issues.8 Unfortunately, cultural competency programs have been criticized as lacking a comprehensive skill set, being limited in scope by not sufficiently addressing important social, political, and economic factors that contribute to health and health care disparities, and failing to demonstrate improved health outcomes or diminished health disparities.9,10 The few existing evaluations of disparities courses are limited by the small number of students participating,11 or evaluation tools that measured significant changes in attitudes but did not measure changes in knowledge or skills regarding health disparities.12 Therefore, we developed and evaluated an elective course on health care disparities designed to: 1) introduce incoming first year medical students to health disparities issues and improve their knowledge, skills, and attitudes, 2) help medical students to become aware of personal biases regarding racial and ethnic minorities, 3) inspire medical students to make a commitment to serve indigent populations.13,14 This paper describes the course and analyzes changes in knowledge.




The course “Health Care Disparities in America” was offered to all matriculating students to the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. The course was an intensive 5-day elective course the week before orientation week. Course requirements included presence at all lectures, small group discussions, and community site visits, as well as active participation in discussion. Recommended readings were provided in a syllabus and teams of students were required to make a poster on 1 of 5 health disparity topics. All grades during the first 2 years are pass/fail.


We incorporated the goals that the Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM) Health Disparities Task Force developed for courses on health disparities15: 1) learners should gain knowledge of the existence and magnitude of health disparities, including the multifactorial etiology of health disparities and the multiple solutions required to eliminate them, 2) learners should examine and understand the potential for mistrust, subconscious bias and stereotyping that practitioners or patients or both may bring to the clinical encounter, 3) learners should acquire the skills to effectively communicate and negotiate across cultures, including trust-building and timely utilization of culturally appropriate interpreter services, and 4) learners should develop a commitment to reduce health disparities, particularly those caused by disparate health care.

Teaching Methods

Several teaching modalities were employed: didactic lectures lasting 50–60 minutes, 20-minute lectures on specific diseases important in Chicago’s South Side community, small group discussions led by 2 faculty members, and poster session workshops led by the resident teachers that utilized a teach back method designed to help students recognize their roles in teaching others about health disparities. Students had onsite access to the internet and Medline throughout the course.

The course primarily took place at the University of Chicago. However, 3 of the 5 afternoons were spent off site. Students traveled via buses to the University of Chicago Emergency Room, Stroger (formerly Cook County) Hospital, and local community health centers. At each site, the students were greeted by physicians who provided a tour of the facilities and described the patient population they serve, insurance patterns, resources, and specific needs.


Thirty-two faculty members from multiple institutions and different disciplinary backgrounds participated. Half were women. Over a third were African American or Latina.

Course Content

Table 1 shows how different educational modalities addressed each course goal.

 Table 1
Course Topics Stratified by Goals and Teaching Modalities


Course director Dr. Vela’s time (0.125 full-time equivalent × 4 months) and the posters ($500) were funded by the Department of Medicine. The Office of Medical Education funded buses for site visits ($2,500).


This study was exempted by the University of Chicago Institutional Review Board.

Study Instruments

Pre-Course Survey The anonymous numbered pre-course survey was comprised of several parts. Part one required the students to rate their own ability to describe health disparities and potential solutions, Chicago’s patient population, the history of health care for African Americans, and which populations are at high risk for common illnesses. The students were asked to rate their abilities using a quantitative scale of poor, fair, good, very good, or excellent. Part 2 assessed knowledge and asked the students 13 true/false questions on cultural competency, health literacy, Medicare and Medicaid, racial and ethnic disparities, language barriers and use of interpreters, historical discrimination issues, and trends in disparities. Part 3 asked a series of demographic questions including race, ethnicity, age, and gender.

Post-Course Survey The students completed an anonymous numbered post-course survey. Parts 1 through 3 were identical to the pre-course survey. The students also filled out the medical school’s standard course evaluation form.

Data Analysis

We performed analyses to describe student characteristics as well as their changes in knowledge and abilities to work with diverse populations. We used tests on the equality of proportion to compare the proportion of correct answers for students’ pre- and post-course knowledge, as well as Pearson chi-square test to compare students’ pre and post course responses to their abilities to describe health care disparities issues. All testing was performed in STATA 9.2 at a two sided significance level of p < .05.


The pre- and post-course survey response rates were 97% and 100%, respectively.

Student Characteristics

Sixty-four (60%) of 104 incoming first year students elected to participate in the course. About 50% were women, 10% were Hispanic, and 5% were African American. Nearly 20% of students had received or knew someone who had received inferior care because of disparities in health, and over 90% recalled reading or hearing about health disparities before the course. A survey (response rate 53%) of the students who did not take the course revealed no significant demographic differences compared with course participants.

Student Knowledge About Health Care Disparities

Overall students’ factual knowledge (76 to 89%, p < .0009) about health disparities and abilities to address disparities issues improved after the course (Tables 2 and and33).

 Table 2
Student Knowledge of Health Disparities
 Table 3
Ability to Describe Health Disparities Issues*

Summary Course Evaluation

This course received the highest ratings in the entire curriculum. On a 5-point scale where 5 is the best, the mean + SD ratings for 3 key summary questions were: “The course met its objectives.” (4.8 + 0.40); “I would recommend this course to my peers.” (4.9 + 0.25); “Overall, this course was a valuable learning experience.” (4.9 + 0.27).


Our health disparities curriculum for incoming medical students improved their knowledge. The timing of the course before the start of medical school rather than during the school year allowed students to learn the content with fewer competing demands on the students’ time and attention.

Our study has several limitations. First, self-selection by more interested and motivated students might have favorably skewed our results. Second, we did not use a preexisting psychometrically tested survey instrument because none was appropriate for our purposes. Third, many of the questions were the same in both pre- and post-course surveys, and thus students’ post-course responses may have been influenced by their earlier exposure to the questions. Fourth, longer follow-up of both participating and non-participating students will be needed to determine impact on student behavior. Nonetheless, our course is innovative in that it is the first health disparities course for medical students incorporating the SGIM Health Disparities Task Force goals,15 it used a variety of teaching modalities, and it occurred early in students’ medical school careers.

The University of Chicago is now requiring this course for all first year medical students in the week immediately after orientation. Future plans include increasing patient contact by offering the course after students have completed HIPAA training, devoting more time to reflection and discussion, and reducing the number of lectures. We plan to create electives on health disparities for upperclassmen.

This study supports the adoption of the curriculum goals established by the SGIM Health Disparities Task Force.15 Future research should focus on the prevalence and evaluation of other existing health disparities courses, adaptability of this curriculum to other medical schools, and its implementation as a required course.


This study was supported by the Department of Medicine, University of Chicago, the Office of Medical Education at the Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Diabetes Research and Training Center (P60 DK20595). Dr. Chin is supported by a Midcareer Investigator Award in Patient-oriented Research from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (K24 DK071933).

This paper was presented in part at the 2007 Society of General Internal Medicine Annual Meeting, Toronto, Ontario, and the 2007 Association of American Medical Colleges Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C.

The authors would like to thank Dean Holly Humphrey and the staff at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine for their generosity and active support in accommodating this course into the medical school curriculum. We would like to thank Dr. Joe G.N. Garcia, Chairman of Medicine at the University of Chicago for his mentorship, leadership, and support in the development and implementation of this course. This course would not have been successful without the passionate and inspiring lecturers who devoted hours of their time and shared their personal histories with our students.

Conflict of Interest None disclosed.


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Articles from Journal of General Internal Medicine are provided here courtesy of Society of General Internal Medicine