Social Scientists in Medical Education: Important Contributors to the Educational Mission

By Bobbie Ann Adair White and Leila Diaz

When we began our careers in medical education in the early 2000s, our roles (Student Affairs and Admissions) were adjacent to those of educators but not truly intertwined in content development and delivery. We found there were opportunities to create and lobby for co-curricular social sciences content, but often these were ancillary to the basic and clinical sciences. However, in the mid 2000s content such as leadership, and interprofessional education began to gain traction, and the popularity of small group delivery methods grew. These trends opened doors for social scientists to contribute more meaningfully within the curriculum…

The evolution of medical school admission and educational processes provide significant evidence of the need for social scientists to be involved. Medical education now includes different curricular approaches, adding content beyond the basic and clinical sciences, and a greater focus on team-based learning. Furthermore, the newly added Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior section on the latest MCAT also demonstrates that this knowledgebase and skillset is important in the selection and development of future physicians. We want our students to demonstrate interpersonal competencies such as social skills, cultural humility, teamwork, ethical responsibility to self and others, and capacity for improvement; however, we must continue to provide them with opportunities for growth in these areas which is where social scientists can be great contributors in medical education.

Social scientists can contribute in training future physicians to consider how different types of leadership skills exist among them and how to best utilize them in their interprofessional teams. They can encourage students to self-assess during medical school, as well as assist students in honestly reflecting on aspects that directly impact their care of patients such as biases, communication, and empathy. Conflict resolution is also taught in order to improve students’ interpersonal skills and enable them to meaningfully negotiate difficult patient and family situations. This added foundational training and opportunity for reflection will help these future physicians become the grounded, compassionate, insightful, and caring providers we aim to graduate.

More and more, diversity is being recognized as an important and necessary component of medical education. The focus has been primarily on training a more diverse physician population; however students also benefit from a faculty diverse in the added perspectives that social scientists can bring. A social scientist, Scott Page, studies the impact and benefit of diversity on organizations, highlighting how bringing people together with different backgrounds and life experiences helps make groups more productive (Page, 2007). This applies to leveraging diversity among a medical school class as well as to the faculty who teach them. Social scientists bring a perspective different than that of basic scientists and clinical faculty helping to make the educational experience stronger, especially in regard to areas such as the social and psychological impact of communication, leadership, cultural competence skills, impact of bias, conflict resolution, and self-awareness and reflection.

When speaking with faculty at the graduate medical education level, rarely are complaints heard about the student’s clinical skills or knowledge. Concerns are more often voiced about a lack of communication skills, humility, or self-awareness. These skills can all be improved by the teaching of social science. Social scientists help students self-assess, understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, which builds humility. Additionally, social scientists can help medical students to learn to recognize strengths and use them to maximize success. If a student is self-aware and has positive interpersonal skills, they can navigate obstacles more effectively. Fortunately, many have begun to see the importance of what a social scientist can bring to the table. The time has come to leverage the important contributions social science faculty and content can bring to medical education.

Reference: Page, S. E. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.



Bobbie Ann Adair White, MA, is Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities in Medicine at Texas A & M Health Science Center.




Leila E. Diaz, MA, MEd, is the Assistant Dean of Admissions and Adjunct Instructor in the Department of Humanities in Medicine at Texas A & M Health Science Center.


They are co-authors of the text, Richard Sanker, Leila E. Diaz, Bobbie Ann Adair White (2015) Guide to Becoming a Physician. (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA. Kendall Hunt. ISBN-9781465275097

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