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Future Doctors More Comfortable Interacting with Patients after Learning Marketing Techniques, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Study Shows


After learning and using marketing principles to create health education brochures, medical students reported improved comfort interacting with patients of diverse backgrounds and limited understanding of health information, according to a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study published in this month’s Patient Education and Counseling.

The medical school’s innovative pilot program adopted commercial marketing principles for positive social purposes, also known as “social marketing.” The goal was to help train future doctors to interact with patients who have differing cultural perspectives and limited “health literacy,” or the ability to obtain and understand basic health information. According to the Institute of Medicine, nearly 90 million people in the United States are considered to have limited health literacy.

“We have found that social marketing may provide an innovative and compelling framework for teaching medical students to be sensitive to the needs of patients with different degrees of health literacy and diverse backgrounds,” said Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ed.M., senior author of the study and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

All 147 students enrolled in the first-year medical school class at the University of Pittsburgh participated in the study. Dr. Primack and his colleagues engaged the students in a curriculum in which students designed health-related brochures using marketing principles relevant to their clinical experiences.

Several student-produced brochures were selected for professional production and distribution in local hospitals and doctors’ offices. For example, one brochure, titled “Livin’ la Vida con Vacunas,” addressed early childhood vaccinations and was targeted at Hispanic women who are likely to be mothers of young children. Other brochures creatively tackled health issues as varied as motorcycle helmet safety, facing the diagnosis of cancer, tattoo and piercing safety, eating well while traveling and losing weight by walking to the next bus stop.

“After a brief and inexpensive intervention, medical students showed measurable improvement in their understanding of social marketing and health literacy,” said Dr. Primack. “Furthermore, their self-reported comfort interacting with patients of diverse backgrounds after the study was independently associated with their knowledge of health literacy and their experience developing the brochures.”

Co-authors of the study include Thuy Bui, M.D., medical director for the program for health care to underserved populations at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and Carl I. Fertman, Ph.D., M.B.A., from the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

Dr. Primack was supported by a University of Pittsburgh Innovation in Education award and was funded by the Office of the Provost of the University of Pittsburgh.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is considered among the nation’s leading medical schools, renowned for its curriculum that emphasizes both the science and humanity of medicine and its remarkable growth in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant support, which has more than doubled since 1998. For fiscal year 2005, the University ranked seventh out of more than 3,000 entities receiving NIH support with respect to the research grants awarded to its faculty. The majority of these grants were awarded to the faculty of the medical school. As one of the university’s six Schools of the Health Sciences, the School of Medicine is the academic partner to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Their combined mission is to train tomorrow’s health care specialists and biomedical scientists, engage in groundbreaking research that will advance understanding of the causes and treatments of disease and participate in the delivery of outstanding patient care.


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