Interprofessional Education: Not Just for the Fun of It

Jan 21, 2014, 9:00 AM

Brenda Zierler, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a professor of behavioral nursing and health systems at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she focuses on interprofessional education in the health professions. She is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program (2008-2011). This post is part of the “Health Care in 2014” series, in which health leaders, as well as Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholars, grantees, and alumni, share their New Year’s resolutions for our health care system and their priorities for action this year.


Over the last several years, health professional students at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle have had numerous opportunities to participate in interprofessional education (IPE) events using a variety of pedagogical approaches, experiences, and technologies such as unfolding web-based cases, team-building exercises, simulated scenarios, mock codes, joint quality improvement placements, shadowing health professionals, and service learning in the community.

These activities are highly rated, and students typically provide positive testimonials about the importance of working together early in their training. Although the feedback provided by the students is overwhelmingly positive, I was concerned that the students were not fully understanding the rationale for these numerous IPE activities, which are logistically challenging to develop, implement, and evaluate.

I was recently invited to give a lecture to describe local and national IPE initiatives to pre-licensure students in a UW leadership class. These students had participated in two IPE events during one academic quarter. While standing outside of the classroom waiting for the first guest speaker to finish his PowerPoint lecture, I decided to abandon the lecture and instead to facilitate a discussion on the rationale for the IPE events. 

I asked the students to tell me about their experience with the first two IPE events. They described how they had learned about the roles and responsibilities of other health professional students, and they acknowledged their surprise to learn about the overlap in content and skills training across the various programs.

Then, I asked them if they knew why we were holding these events. Their answers were enlightening; most said that these events were organized to help them get to know each other and learn how to work together as a team. When I asked them why we would want them to work together as a team, they shrugged their shoulders. As I expected, they assumed we were doing IPE for IPE’s sake and were unaware that these activities were to provide them with the opportunities and skills to be “collaborative-practice ready” when they complete their programs.

We spent the remainder of the class time discussing the “Triple Aim,” which seeks to improve the health of the population, improve the delivery of health care, and improve the cost and efficiency of care; the relationship between team-based care and health care reform; and the need for improved communication and teamwork to deliver safe and high quality care.

The faculty developing IPE activities have worked very hard to secure space for large groups of interprofessional students, create authentic unfolding cases, map the IPE competencies to the learning objectives, and provide just-in-time training to faculty facilitators. It was clear from the students’ responses that faculty leading IPE events, activities, or courses could better serve IPE goals by being more explicit about the purpose of these trainings and by providing the rationale and context for them.

We are not doing this for fun; we are doing this to help train future practitioners to provide safer and higher-quality patient or population-centered care as members of a team. Hopefully, that will be fun, too.

Read more about the push for interprofessional education.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.