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What Urban Doctors Need to Understand About Patients' Health

Poor health isn’t just a result of individual choice. A program at Washington University in St. Louis teaches first-year medical students how the city’s environment shapes well-being.
A pediatrician examines a young boy at a free clinic for the poor and uninsured in Los Angeles.
A pediatrician examines a young boy at a free clinic for the poor and uninsured in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes/AP

Last year, Griffin Plattner’s medical school orientation included more than tours of hospital corridors and lecture halls. Plattner, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, visited a former African-American hospital and public housing complex, and other sites in low-income neighborhoods, and listened to lectures about the city’s history of racism and segregation.

The university has offered the tour for more than 15 years, and its goal is to help future doctors understand the various circumstances of some of their patients’ lives in order to treat them more effectively and with more empathy. When the program began in 1999, it was voluntary, and about 20 students signed up; now all 130 students participate before they even step into a classroom.