Once or twice a month, for a total of 10 sessions throughout the year, nursing, medical and dental students at UCLA meet in small groups to focus on the context of health-care decision making. Topics are literally “ripped from the headlines” and might include the legal, political and moral aspects of sexual assault, the economics and cultural considerations involved in end-of-life decision making, and the public and personal interpretation of what constitutes conflict of interest.

These students are part of an interprofessional (IP) education course called Systems-Based Healthcare that’s breaking new ground in how health-care professionals work together for the benefit of their patients.

Physicians and nurses have worked together for hundreds of years, but they have been educated in and often work in silos, creating barriers to effective collaboration and teamwork. Failures in effective collaboration among interprofessional teams have been associated with increased patient harm, increased hospital lengths of stay, caregiver dissatisfaction turnover and decreased evidence-based practice. Yet, there is a growing mountain of research that shows that when a health-care practice team works together, it improves patient safety, quality of care and health outcomes, including lower readmission and mortality rates.

In response to the studies, the UCLA School of Nursing and the David Geffen School of Medicine created a pilot program in 2009 to integrate the two disciplines at UCLA. Nurse practitioner students joined third-year medical students in a class discussing health-care topics ranging from legal, economic and ethical issues to team-building strategies and differences between medicine and nursing. The idea was for students from both schools to increase their awareness of each other’s roles and get used to working together in making decisions. In 2013, the UCLA School of Dentistry joined the course, becoming the first dental school in the country to participate in an IP education program.

“If we want people from different health professions to understand each other and not view one another as potentially antagonistic, we need to have them grow up together as students,” says Margaret Stuber, assistant dean for well-being and career development in the David Geffen School of Medicine.

Jo-Ann Eastwood M.S.N. ’95, Ph.D. ’04, associate professor in the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse program at the School of Nursing, agrees. “By bringing these students together, they’ll know what each other’s roles are,” she says. “By understanding the skills and competencies of each discipline, they’ll communicate much better. And that leads to better patient outcomes.”

The nearly 200 students who have participated in the class each year have consistently pointed out how valuable the experience has been, preparing them to work in teams to provide better care for patients.