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5 Years of “Social Competence”: Haus der Barmherzigkeit teaching medical students sensitivity to patient needs

(Vienna, 7th October 2014) The Medical University of Vienna has been working with the non-profit organisation Haus der Barmherzigkeit to teach social competence skills to aspiring doctors – with considerable success. As part of the Social Competence course around 3,600 medical students have gained early experience in direct contact with people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. The aim of the programme is to make students aware of the importance of an empathetic and respectful approach to patients, right from the start.

A few days ago, the sixth “Social Competence” course got underway at Haus der Barmherzigkeit. Over the next few weeks, around 750 future doctors will gain practical experience of hospital work in their very first semester, although without any medical or care-giving responsibilities at first. The aim of the course, which is split into several modules, is to teach students from the outset the fundamental skills they need when dealing with patients. At its heart is a five-day practical placement for all students on the wards of a geriatric hospital, care home or at a residential community for the disabled, working with people in need of care.

Awareness is key

Other important aspects of social competence are making aspiring doctors aware of the gender-specific, social and cultural factors in healthcare and preparing students to work together on interdisciplinary teams. “We aim to make students aware of as many perspectives as possible, which is why nursing and therapy form part of our training alongside medicine. We are particularly proud of this interdisciplinary approach,” explained Christoph Gisinger, course leader and institute director, at a press conference at the Haus der Barmherzigkeit on 7 October. 30 staff from various fields within the Haus der Barmherzigkeit are currently teaching on the course, while a further 60 care staff are advising students on their placements.

High student numbers but still a top class course
“The aim is to raise the students’ awareness of appropriate communication, empathy and respect when dealing with patients, and of professional behaviour in interdisciplinary teams,” explains Karin Gutiérrez-Lobos, Vice Rector for Teaching, Gender and Diversity at the MedUni Vienna. “It should ultimately inspire them to reflect on their own role and make them aware of gender-specific, social and cultural factors determining health and illness.”
Although there is a large number of participants – around 750 students per year – the logistics are cleverly thought through, enabling individual mentoring across 21 wards and 12 residential communities.  This guarantees that there will never be more than three students on one ward at any time during the placements. “Getting the right balance between a large course and individual support ensures that every student has enough time for direct contact with the patients. It also prevents our patients from being overwhelmed by too many unfamiliar people,” says Gisinger. Seminars and feedback sessions are run in small groups of around ten participants. “Our work with Haus der Barmherzigkeit is particularly valuable in this respect. Their depth of dedication and specialist knowledge helps equip our first-year students for professional life. Student feedback is outstanding,” says Gutiérrez-Lobos.

The “Social Competence” course takes place once a year in the winter semester and is compulsory for medical students in Vienna.