Interprofessional Education: Getting Initiatives Off the Ground

by Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

The rapidly changing health care landscape increasingly requires caregivers to provide evidence-based, interprofessional care and to prepare students to exhibit these competencies upon graduation. To underscore this requirement, educational and practice accrediting bodies expect evidence of structures and processes which facilitates such collaboration (Nickol, 2015).

Despite this emphasis on interprofessional collaboration, educators struggle to provide learning opportunities for students to develop competence in working effectively in interprofessional teams.  Practitioners providing direct or indirect care also face challenges to meaningful collaboration.  These challenges may include scheduling conflicts, differences in professional goals among disciplines, interprofessional distrust, payment mechanisms that do not support team functioning and lack of understanding of the roles, responsibilities and education of various member of the team.

My own professional trajectory has confirmed that the barriers to interprofessional collaboration are real, not simply excuses allowing a provider to practice independently.  As the administrator of several mental health/substance abuse organizations—a practice site  where collaborative planning is highly valued—I have watched physicians, nurses, social workers, and a variety of therapists struggle to schedule and operationalize effective team meetings.  As the Dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Service at a university with both on-ground and online undergraduate and graduate programs in nursing and allied health (respiratory care, radiological sciences, dental hygiene, social work, health care administration, kinesiology and athletic training) I began a college-wide Interprofessional Initiative.  As part of this initiative, faculty developed short term learning opportunities for students and faculty from the various disciplines to work together on multiple projects.  They also established core courses for both on-line and on-ground students in the college.  I saw faculty who were committed to interdisciplinary collaboration juggle schedules, address institutional regulations that made joint classes difficult and work to overcome previously held prejudices about other disciplines. Interprofessional practice and education is exciting and worthwhile but the challenges that confront innovators are often difficult and daunting.

In order to encourage successful interprofessional collaboration in practice or education, the challenges must be addressed. I believe that both educators and practitioners would benefit from evidenced-based (if possible) and anecdotal examples of overcoming barriers in order to implement an effective interprofessional collaboration in education and practice.

Until such evidence is available and given the drive for interprofessional education, how should we proceed, despite the challenges?  Here are some suggestions for initial steps to move toward educational experiences that meet everyone’s needs. They also work well if your interprofessional initiative has lost steam and needs a reboot.

  1. Identify like-minded educators within your environment who are interested in interprofessional education.  Reach across disciplines on an individual basis to determine which leaders (Deans or others) might be interested in participating. Knowing which accrediting bodies are particularly interested in the interprofessional education is one way to identify potential collaborators.
  2. Bring together those faculty members from the identified disciples to develop an initial interprofessional education initiative in your environment. Those chosen to begin the project should be ones who believe that interprofessional collaboration is an important educational tool, not those who have no interest in the idea. (Nay-sayers can be brought along later.)
  3. Encourage the group to start small in developing their ideas for interprofessional collaboration. The challenges (scheduling, time, competing priorities) are real. “Biting off more than you can chew” can set the group up for failure when encouraging others to participate.
  4. Allow the group to come up with the plan. As a leader, you may provide a timeline or criteria for success, but requiring that a specific program be implemented dampens the enthusiasm of the group.  After all, they are the ones that are going to do the work!

Interprofessional education is difficult, but may have a huge impact on our students’ preparation to enhance collaboration in the practice environment. Good luck in moving toward this goal!


P.S.  I would encourage you all to publish the successes AND failures of your initiatives. This will certainly give all of us the opportunity to learn from your experiences.


Nickol, D (2015) Interprofessional Education: What’s Now and What’s Next?  Journal of Interprofessional Education & Practice. 1 (1-2).

2 thoughts on “Interprofessional Education: Getting Initiatives Off the Ground”

  1. I can share one example of success with our recently published report on the Interprofessional Primary Care Course we pioneered at University of Washington:
    – Engaged trainees in all health professions: Dentistry, medicine, nursing, PA, pharmacy, public health, social work.
    – Earned top student evaluations.
    – Recruited students to careers in primary care.
    – Led to student recommendations to require the course for all health professions.

    Phillips WR, Keys T. Interprofessional primary care course curriculum and evaluation. Family Medicine. 2018 Mar;50(3):217-222. doi: 10.22454/FamMed.2018.998057.

    • Click on the link to see and download free the complete article PDF.
    • Learn about our pioneering course, the first and only such program in the nation.
    • Read student reflections describing the course as a life-changing experience.

    • Consider posting a comment on the Family Medicine journal website.
    • Share with your team and with others training health professionals, building PC teams and working across professional boundaries.


    William R. Phillips
    University of Washington

  2. William–Thanks so much for posting this. This is great information which will be very helpful to all our readers. I have heard about the work that University of Washington has done in IPE and I am glad to read about this success. Susy

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