On a recent Thursday morning, across 125th Street from the Apollo Theater in Harlem, pharmacy and medical students from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and Touro College of Pharmacy gathered for an unusual event. It was the first session of a course they would be taking together, titled “Introduction to Cultural Competence in Healthcare.”

Usually offered only to the medical students, the course is designed to expose first-year students to challenges in understanding cultural diversity in health care. The goal is to turn the students into better doctors, practicing medicine in underserved communities.

But this year, Touro decided to include the pharmacy students so that the medical and pharmacy students would learn from one another and collaborate. It was the inaugural exercise in interprofessional education, or IPE, as it’s known.

“IPE is defined by the World Health Organization as a situation where two or more health disciplines ‘learn about, with and from’ one another for future collaboration, to improve patient care and lower health care costs,” explained Esquire Anthony, D.O., assistant clinical professor in the Primary Care Department at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, who assembled an IPE task force composed of faculty from the pharmacy school, the medical school and other disciplines, such as social work and mental health, as well as library and information services.

By combining the students, Touro is attempting to address one of the components of the WHO definition of IPE, by having them learn “with” one another. “This is our first attempt at it,” he said.

The class made a good first impression on Mohamad Cheaito, a second-year Pharm.D. student from Michigan, who said IPE activities for students are important because doctors, nurses and pharmacists collaborate daily and the fields intertwine.

“Combining IPE in one class gives the students early exposure that is needed before graduating and working in the real world,” he said, adding that cultural competency is especially important in diverse cities such as New York. “Lacking cultural competence is similar to going to school but without pen and pencil to write with,” he continued. “A physician or a pharmacist can be experts in their fields, yet they won’t have any means of communicating important information to the patient.”

Topics in the course will remain the same but with opportunities to address the pharmacy component and the medical component, and then collaborate, Anthony said. Each discipline will respect the other’s understanding of cultural competency, he assured.

The morning session opened with Dean Robert Goldberg welcoming the students via Skype from Washington, D.C. As the students filled out pre-IPE surveys, Course Director Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., explained that exercises would be done in interprofessional groups working together. Term papers would be written that would reflect how pharmacy and medical students interacted and cooperated in providing culturally sensitive treatment.

“This is new and historic,” Gardere said. “The only way we truly think is when we come out of our comfort zone. We know that when our physicians and pharmacists work together, the outcome is always better.”

Cara Rabin, a first-year D.O. student originally from Manhattan, predicted fewer mistakes made in medicine, as well as better camaraderie among staff, as a result of such collaboration. “If these professions learn together, they can better understand where others are coming from and make better spur-of-the-moment decisions,” she said. “I have never worked with pharmacists before, but I think there can only be value in adding pharmacy students, as they are a critical part of inpatient and outpatient clinical care.”

Anthony took the class through a PowerPoint presentation on cultural competence in health care and interprofessional education and collaborative practice. He touched on a wide range of topics, including health care disparities, and provided examples of interprofessional collaboration at Touro that the community may not be aware of, such as a basketball game between the pharmacy and medical schools.

“When there is a team approach, there is cost savings, and patients appreciate it when more than one health care specialist is addressing their care,” he said. “The health outcomes are better.”

Touro is a system of nonprofit institutions of higher and professional education. Touro College was chartered in 1970, primarily to enrich the Jewish heritage and to serve the larger American and global community. Approximately 19,000 students are currently enrolled in its various schools and divisions. Touro College has branch campuses, locations and instructional sites in the New York area, as well as branch campuses and programs in Berlin, Jerusalem, Moscow, Paris and Florida. New York Medical College, Touro University California and its Nevada branch campus, as well as Touro University Worldwide and its Touro College Los Angeles division are separately accredited institutions within the Touro College and University system. For further information on Touro College, please go to www.touro.edu.