Geneseo’s pioneering sociomedical sciences major aims to improve treatment for all.

By Lonny Lippsett

In 2019, Geneseo became the first and only institution in the SUNY system to offer a new undergraduate major — sociomedical sciences. The interdisciplinary field examines what is happening in people’s bodies but also in their communities and lives in an effort to make access to good health more equitable.

When it comes to delivering health care, one size does not fit all segments of society.

“Health challenges and disparities are not merely products of biology,” said Melanie Medeiros, coordinator of the sociomedical sciences program and associate professor of anthropology. Different communities live in different socioeconomic, educational, environmental, cultural, political and other circumstances, which create distinct health risks and needs.

Social inequalities have always led to disparate health outcomes. People living in certain poor, rural, or politically oriented areas, for example, may have less access to health insurance, hospitals or grocery stores to buy healthful foods. These circumstances can often lead to higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and other pre-existing conditions, which, in turn, make people more vulnerable to other diseases, such as COVID-19. The pandemic has made more people aware of social inequities in health care. It has killed a disproportionately high number of African-American, Latino and poor people, many of whom couldn’t shelter safely and comfortably at home but had to take mass transit to keep jobs that required physical contact or return to homes crowded with family. Even something as basic as spreading the word via social media to wash hands isn’t universally effective for people who don’t have internet or running water.

The new sociomedical sciences major incorporates education and training in the social sciences and humanities to expand the lens through which students examine the causes, spread, prevention and treatment of illness. That lens helps us better understand and address related issues in the world.

“Traditionally, students interested in working in health fields completed the majority of their undergraduate degree coursework focused on the natural sciences,” Medeiros said. “But an interdisciplinary approach better prepares students to tackle the health issues facing the United States and the world.”

Geneseo instituted the approach in 2014, creating a sociomedical sciences minor. The program was so popular, it was expanded into a major. Since 2017, 25 students have graduated with sociomedical sciences minors and 55 are current minors. Since the major was launched in 2019, 66 students have declared the major.

Geneseo’s bachelor’s program is a gateway into medical, physician assistant, dental and chiropractic schools and programs in public health, nursing, occupational therapy and physical therapy, Medeiros said. The major can also lead to in-demand, entry-level positions in careers such as health care administration, health policy analysis, community health work, health education and patient navigation, or guiding patients through the health care system.

The first three students majoring in sociomedical sciences graduated this year, including Jason Nietzschmann ’20. He will pursue a master’s degree in health policy and management at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Public Policy.

“For me, the program highlighted important power relations and social forces that work to either obstruct or improve our health-seeking strategies and our overall susceptibility to illness and diseases,” he said.