ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Doctors in training learn a lot about the workings of the human body during medical school and residency. Many are taught next to nothing, though, about the workings of the health care system. That starting to change, and George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is serving as a model. Julie Rovner sent us this report.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: On this Tuesday afternoon in early spring, a couple of dozen medical residents are getting a tour of a community health center in Washington, D.C., run by Unity Health. Right now, they're in the center's dental clinic.
ANDREA ANDERSON: And if you think that the crisis of medically uninsured is high, the crisis of dental uninsured is even higher. So many of our patients suffer from not having proper dental insurance.
ROVNER: Andrea Anderson is the clinic's medical director. She points out all the medical services the health center provides, but also some of the things that make the place, well, different. Instead of just telling patients to eat more vegetables, for example, they give out farmers market vouchers and then demonstrate how to cook the veggies their patients by in an on-site kitchen.
ANDERSON: We can use the test kitchen to say, here, this is how we chop it up. This is how we cook it. Look, here's your kid chopping it up. They're having fun.
ROVNER: The tour is part of a three-week fellowship in health policy run jointly by the George Washington University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. In addition to hearing lectures from policy experts in and around the nation's capital, the residents take field trips to Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and local clinics and community health centers.
Fitzhugh Mullan is a pediatrician and GW professor and has led the program since it began more than a decade ago. In the car driving from GW to the Unity clinic, he says when he went to medical school in the 1960s, learning how the health system worked was barely an afterthought.
FITZHUGH MULLAN: Things such as public health were recognized with a one-credit course in the curriculum that everybody thought was terrible, partly 'cause it and partly 'cause they discounted it as being important.
ROVNER: Mullan says residency is a particular good time to teach policy because the young doctors have seen enough of the health system close-up to get an idea of where its flaws are.
MULLAN: They're in the game, and the opportunity to stop and talk about the game and how the game could be played better is very appealing to them.
ROVNER: That's certainly true for fellow Chris Cahill. He's a third-year resident in pediatrics at Children's National Health System in Washington. He says he got interested in policy as a medical student at University of Vermont a few years ago. At the time, the state was debating whether or not to create a new single-payer model to pay for health care. That didn't happen. But Cahill says now that he's later in his training, the policy aspects are even more relevant.
CHRIS CAHILL: It's a great time to do it now because we still have those idealistic ideas, but we also have a lot of practical experience. And we know what the face of these problems look like much better than we did in medical school or college, even.
ROVNER: There's a growing awareness that doctors need more training in the nonclinical parts of health care. Neel Shah is an obstetrician-gynecologist in Boston and a health policy researcher at Harvard.
NEEL SHAH: You know, as a profession, we provide the most expensive services that any American will spend money on in their whole lifetime. And yet at the point of service, we can't tell anybody what anything costs. That's crazy.
ROVNER: Even worse, says Shah, most doctors are trained explicitly not to take cost into consideration.
SHAH: Clinical training really teaches you to be a terrible steward of health care resources in every way. When you're being chastised as a trainee, it's always for the things that you didn't do, but could have done. It's never for the things that you did do, but didn't have to, when, of course, patients can be harmed both ways.
ROVNER: For now, the program is mostly limited to residents from GW and other Washington, D.C., facilities, but Mullan is in the process of creating a new version at three sites in California. I'm Julie Rovner.
SHAPIRO: Julie Rovner is with Kaiser Health News.
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