As physicians work to achieve optimal health outcomes for their patients, they often struggle to address the issues that arise outside the clinic. Social, economic, and political factors influence patients’ burden of disease, access to treatment, and health outcomes. This challenge has motivated recent calls for increased attention to the social determinants of health. At the same time, advocates have called for increased attention to global health. Each year, more U.S. medical students participate in global health experiences. Yet, the global health training that is available varies widely. The discipline of social medicine, which attends to the social determinants of disease, social meanings of disease, and social responses to disease, offers a solution to both challenges. The analyses and techniques of social medicine provide an invaluable toolkit for providing health care in the United States and abroad.
In 2007, Harvard Medical School implemented a new course, required for all first-year students, that teaches social medicine in a way that integrates global health. In this article, the authors argue for the importance of including social medicine and global health in the preclinical curriculum; describe Harvard Medical School’s innovative, integrated approach to teaching these disciplines, which can be used at other medical schools; and explore the barriers that educators may face in implementing such a curriculum, including resistance from students. Such a course can equip medical students with the knowledge and tools that they will need to address complex health problems in the United States and abroad.