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silva-brownFor more than 200 years, tomatoes were widely feared throughout Europe and the United States. It was believed that consuming this fruit would lead to great sickness and possible death. Some hypothesized that one’s blood would slowly turn to acid, while others believed tomatoes produced deadly appendicitis. As a result, many individuals grew them in their homes as ornamental plants with a “look, but do not touch” mantra. However, wealthy individuals during the 19th century owned and ate food off of pewter plates, and the acid from the tomato eroded the pewter. People succumbed to the deleterious effects of lead consumption, not the tomato. This once highly feared fruit is now a household staple, associated with many health benefits.

Academics, including Drury pre-health faculty, use this story to highlight one primary message: Accepting one viewpoint leads to resistance. Resistance to change. Resistance to challenge the status quo. Resistance to taking a different path.

Individuals, communities and even academic disciplines have been victims of resistance. We learn something, we stick to that viewpoint, and we become married to it for decades  — maybe even centuries — simply because “that is the way it is.”

The biomedical approach to health and medicine is another such example. It defines health as the absence of disease, pain or defect. Illness is reduced to one underlying cause, that if treated, restores well-being. The limitations are numerous. First, the focus is narrow. Second, it makes irrelevant the psychological and sociological factors that contribute to health conditions. Third, it dehumanizes and disempowers the patient.

The biospsychosocial approach was first proposed by George L. Engel, M.D. in 1977. It was met with resistance and change was slow. However, as more and more empirical research emerged, a medical revolution soon followed. Our ever-growing body of psycho-neuroimmunology research has clearly demonstrated that trafficking patterns of immune cells and hormonal secretions are altered in conjunction with psychosocial states. Psychological and environmental factors directly relate to the severity and mortality of acute and chronic health conditions.

Medical schools and health professional programs now incorporate the biopsychosocial approach into their curriculum. Under changes approved in 2012 by the Association of American Medical Colleges, undergraduate students will now need an understanding of psychology and sociology for the Medical College Admissions Test.

The landscape of undergraduate pre-health education has shifted, and I am proud to say that Drury University is at the forefront. Our progressive minor programs in behavioral neuroscience and community health provide students with opportunities to examine determinants of health through sociological, psychological, anthropological, philosophical and biological lenses. Students in our behavioral neuroscience program gain an understanding of brain circuitry and genetic influence on behavior. Community health students are able to recognize healthcare disparity, promote equity and mobilize health-related resources at the community level.

Drury students are provided with the foundation to become effective health practitioners in the field of modern medicine. The #DruryDifference is apparent in pre-health education.

DR. JENNIFER SILVA BROWN IS AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY AND DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY HEALTH AT DRURY UNIVERSITY.

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