The medical industry is made up of a huge range of disciplines. It is common for the treatment of a single patient to require the input of specialists from a selection of these disciplines. For this reason, collaboration between practices is now commonly championed in the world of medicine.
This article will examine the benefits of this form of collaboration and explore key roles within an interdisciplinary medical team.
Defining interdisciplinary healthcare
The term’ interdisciplinary healthcare’ refers to an arrangement whereby medical professionals from a range of specialisms combine their expertise with the common goal of treating a single patient as comprehensively as possible.
Previously, the standard method of treatment has been for a single practitioner to examine and analyze a patient, draw their own conclusions, and decide on their recommended next steps. They will then refer the individual to the next relevant professional. In many cases, it has been possible for multiple processes to run concurrently in this way. This made the system of diagnosis and treatment more complex and ran the risk of overlap, duplication, or disordered communication.
This method may also give rise to disagreements between medical professionals when it comes to diagnoses, prescriptions, referrals, and treatments, which may further complicate proceedings. The approach of interdisciplinary healthcare is designed to reduce these potential pitfalls.
How collaboration between disciplines achieves the best results
A failure to integrate specialisms can lead to overcomplication and difficulties in communication. By contrast, when an interdisciplinary approach is taken, numerous beneficial outcomes become possible, as outlined below.
Collaborators within a multidisciplinary healthcare team tend to have one goal in common: the effective treatment of the patient. When numerous experts work together in an equitable manner, it is more likely that each team member will be held accountable by the others. This is more likely to result in patient-centered care.
By contrast, when left to focus on their practice or department only, medical specialists may run a higher risk of providing ‘defensive care’ (care focused on self-protection against potential legal threats), ‘protocol-driven care’ (care limited by perceived regulatory restrictions or reliant on precedent) or ‘profit-driven care’ (care that withholds options due to over-zealous budget management).
Of course, legal implications, protocol and finances should always be considered when making decisions in a professional capacity within the healthcare industry, but they should never impede the application of the most effective treatment.
Patient-centered care must always be prioritized before the above alternatives, and a combined approach to diagnosis, treatment and aftercare is more likely to result in care that is completely patient-centered.
While all healthcare professionals should be considered experts in their field, it is impossible for a single practitioner to develop an intimate knowledge of every medical discipline and the ways they interact with the treatment of any conceivable condition.
In a multidisciplinary team, specialists have more opportunities to consult professionals in other fields, discuss their thoughts and seek or impart advice. This will offer a more comprehensive and balanced method of care for the benefit of the patient while enabling all team members to expand on their current expertise. It can help them better understand the interplay between their department and that of another team member. Or they’ll better understand the interplay between the drugs and treatments they prescribe and others prescribed by the practitioners with whom they are collaborating, for example.
This shared expertise can result in a safer environment for patients, as well as more cohesive and informed practices from the team members. It is highly likely, therefore, that any treatment provided will be much more effective, and mistakes, misdiagnoses, and conflicting healthcare plans and advice are far rarer.
A failure to implement an interdisciplinary system of healthcare may result in confused communication, duplication of processes or even negative or counterproductive reactions between treatments. These are very real risks in processes where a patient is referred to specialists in a linear manner. In these situations, each healthcare professional will give their assessment in isolation, prescribe the treatment they personally feel is suitable and then pass the patient to the next specialist with minimal discussion.
The opinions and actions of the next practitioner may conflict with those of the previous professional, leading to complex back-and-forth. In addition, when specialists of multiple practices are engaged in the treatment of the same patient without close collaboration, there are often risks related to timing. Some processes inevitably take longer than others within the field of medicine, and certain actions cannot be taken until others are complete.
Without an interdisciplinary approach and the proactive, transparent sharing of information, it is more likely that treatments or procedures that have been arranged will then need to be delayed so that other processes may be completed first. This will result in stress and frustration for the patient, and the inevitable hold-up may exacerbate their condition.
While a collaborative approach to treatment can help to reduce the risk of errors through improved communication, there are other ways mistakes may be prevented through interdisciplinary work. For example, having multiple experienced and highly qualified individuals may give rise to new perspectives on a potential diagnosis or treatment. Whereas when a single specialist works with a patient in isolation, there is a risk that a subtle symptom may be overlooked.
However, when working collaboratively, the collective experience and approaches of all members of an interdisciplinary team will make it less likely that a symptom – and its implications – will be missed. To this end, healthcare institutions should implement systems that feature numerous specialists scrutinizing and signing off all significant actions within the diagnostic or medical analysis process or the creation of a treatment plan. This will almost certainly result in greater efficacy and a reduced chance for errors to slip through the net.
Problem-solving is closely related to error reduction. The benefits of interdisciplinary work reflect this. Collaboration between specialists working in different but related fields provides ample opportunity for comprehensive troubleshooting approaches and the application of a range of expert perspectives. This makes it more likely that the best possible solution will be found swiftly.
Complex problems with multiple elements can even be broken into components and tackled by representatives of relevant departments. They can then come together to combine their efforts and resolve an issue through combined knowledge and effort.
Better management of resources
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities have access to a finite range of medical equipment, resources, and machinery. The most effective and efficient use of these is vital.
The lack of a collaborative approach and careful planning may lead to patients being sent unnecessarily to other facilities or additional equipment being ordered. This incurs significant costs, delaying diagnosis or treatment and potentially having a detrimental effect on patient health and wellbeing.
Clear communication and collaboration between medical disciplines and departments can improve efficiency, make planning and scheduling the use of resources far more straightforward, and reduce complication and expenditure. It may also speed up processes and improve the patient experience.
Key roles in an interdisciplinary medical team
The specific roles within an interdisciplinary medical team will vary depending on the requirements of individual patients. However, every team requires an efficient, qualified, and personable practice leader or administrator who can provide each team member with equitable responsibilities, responses, and consideration.
It is vital that the individual heading up the team has the capacity within their daily workload to perform this duty effectively, as it may regularly fall on them to make final decisions regarding diagnosis or treatment.
Depending on the nature of a patient’s condition, physicians collaborating within an interdisciplinary medical team may represent a range of different practices, including:
- Allergy and immunology
- Obstetrics and Gynecology
- Radiation oncology
- Rehabilitative medicine
Physicians are required to have a high school diploma or GED followed by four years of college, majoring in a subject such as pre-med or biology.
After this, the usual practice is to take and pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to enter medical school. Following a further four years of study, future physicians must pass the three parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – the first two should be completed at medical school.
Students may then apply for residency, where they can specialize in their chosen discipline. On average, the residency stage lasts between three and seven years. At the end of their residency, a medical student must pass the third part of USMLE.
The final steps involve obtaining certification in their chosen specialist field and applying for licensure for the state they wish to practice in. Once their license is granted, they will be a fully qualified physician and may apply for positions.
Nurses have a very proactive role within almost any interdisciplinary medical team. The fields of nursing closely reflect those of a physician’s specialisms, but there are also various types and levels of nursing qualification, including:
- Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
- Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
- Registered Nurse (RN)
- Nurse Practitioner (NP)
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)
- Nursing Administrator (NA)
- Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)
All these professionals may play a collaborative role in a cross-disciplinary team, but NPs and APRNs are often tasked with some of the main responsibilities when creating treatment plans or making decisions based on diagnosis and care.
To become an APRN, individuals must first become an RN or an NP. This involves gaining a high school diploma or GED, then an accredited college nursing diploma or an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Then, they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN). An RN must then apply for licensure in their chosen state.
To become qualified as an NP, an RN must complete a relevant master’s or doctoral program and then pass a national board certification exam focusing on their chosen specialism.
Finally, to become an APRN, a nurse must study for a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Often it is at this point in their lives and careers that nurses have a range of personal responsibilities, such as families and well-established positions in healthcare facilities. This results in the need for flexibility, short-term study, and the opportunity to earn as they work. This has led to the development of programs that allow nurses to attend accelerated DNP programs online at reputable establishments such as Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. The program at Wilkes allows students to complete their DNP in less than two years while continuing to fulfill their current roles and responsibilities, allowing maximum flexibility.
Pharmacists are a vital addition to almost all interdisciplinary medical teams, as their specialisms lie in the dispensing of medicines, the management of certain medical screenings, and the provision of advice regarding dosage and the use of certain drugs and treatments.
To become a pharmacist, candidates must achieve a PharmD degree. To do this, they must gain a high school diploma or GED and then earn a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in STEM subjects. From there, they must take the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) for entry into a specialist pharmacy college.
Once accepted into college, the candidate must complete a four-year PharmD degree. Then, after graduation, they must apply for state licensure and pass the North American Pharmacy Licensure Examination (NAPLEX).
Aftercare specialists, social workers, and community-based support
There are all kinds of aftercare specialists who may work as part of an interdisciplinary medical team, from physiotherapists to drug counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, and condition-specific specialists who undertake home visits or operate from community-based medical centers. As there are so many different roles within this group, there are dozens of ways to become qualified to take up a position of this kind.
An interdisciplinary approach to medicine can be highly beneficial to both the well-being of patients and the successful running of healthcare facilities. It often results in better management of resources, problem-solving, error reduction, improved communication, and shared expertise – all of which combine to enable the best patient-centered care.