Medical students must realise the root of diseases

Emeritus Professor David Sanders from the University of the Western Cape is speaking at a seminar on the social determinants of health

Future doctors and health care professionals are not being effectively taught to address the “causes of the causes” in health curricula, an international public health expert says.

Emeritus Professor David Sanders, the Founding Director of the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, says that while medical students are well trained to diagnose and treat chronic conditions, they lack general knowledge and understanding of the underlying causes of preventable diseases.

“The causes of the causes are the social determinants of health, which means certain factors including your neighbourhood, level of education, income status and lifestyle all have an impact on your health,” Professor Sanders says.

“In diabetes, for example, medical students would know how to diagnose and treat the disease, and they would know that adult onset diabetes is becoming much more prevalent from a younger age, but they probably haven’t considered what’s driving the increase and what they can do about it,” he said.

“In most medical school curricula, the overwhelming focus is on the biological causes of the problem but there’s very little about the social and economic causes.”

Professor Sanders will present his views at a seminar on the social determinants of health tomorrow night (Tuesday, March 25).

Hosted by the Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University, the Advocating for Health Equity seminar will feature guest speakers Dr Tamara Mackean, Senior Research Fellow at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and Wellbeing and Chairperson of the RACP’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Advisory Committee, and Dr Ian Maddocks, Foundation Professor of Palliative Care at Flinders University and the 2013 Senior Australian of the Year.

Professor Sanders, who is currently working with Flinders Professor Fran Baum on a five-year research program to analyse the extent to which Australian primary health care addresses the social determinants of health, said the seminar aimed to challenge health students and professionals to address the causes of the causes through practice, research and advocacy.

“In the diabetes example, one of the biggest reasons strongly associated with the disease is a change to a more sugary diet compared to what diets used to be like 50 years ago.

“So health professionals should be asking what’s happened to the food environment in the past 30 years, what’s driving the change in our diets and what can we do about it.”

As part of his Australian visit, Professor Sanders will fly to Alice Springs later this week to meet with members of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress to exchange ideas and discuss some of the challenges they face in the delivery of primary health care to remote Indigenous communities.

Advocating for Health Equity is on tomorrow (Tuesday, March 25) from 5:15pm-6:45pm in Lecture Theatre 1.09 of the Health Sciences Building, Flinders University Bedford Park Campus.

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