Two white women sit on either side of a desk in a professor's office, each holding pens over paper.

Assistant sociology professors Christi Sporl, left, and Lacey Ritter work on plans for Wingate’s new medical sociology minor.

“I never thought about it that way.” That’s one sentence that Christi Sporl and Lacey Ritter never tire of hearing in their classrooms. And it’s one that the assistant professors in Wingate’s Sociology Department expect to hear even more often as they develop the University’s minor in medical sociology.

Defined as “the systematic study of how humans manage issues of health and illness, disease and disorders, and health care for both the sick and the healthy,” it’s the fastest-growing segment of sociology.

It’s also an area of study that department chair Aaron Culley believes will fit well with Wingate’s growing focus on health sciences. Grounded in liberal arts, the University has programs in pharmacy, physician assistant studies, physical therapy and nursing and is looking to add occupational therapy and optometry to the mix.

“Medical sociology has been on our radar for two or three years,” Culley says. In fact, the University made the emphasis part of the criteria for recent sociology-faculty hires.

Sporl, whose primary specialization is medical sociology, has studied social inequalities with an emphasis on gender and sexuality, and her research areas have included healthcare utilization and access for vulnerable populations as well as health and illness behaviors within these groups. Ritter, who spent much of her childhood tagging along with her CNA mom to her job in a nursing home, has a passion for gerontology and has researched health disparities among older populations. She also studies sexual orientation differences in health outcomes, behaviors and lifestyles; gender; social psychology; and uses both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

It’s hard to say which of the two recent hires are most excited about developing the new minor.

“Wingate has been amazing with us to let us bring in our areas of interests,” Sporl says.

Students in Sporl’s Introduction to Medical Sociology class appreciate her enthusiasm for the specialty and often find themselves in new intellectual territory, debating questions such as structure versus agency in health behaviors.

Ritter greets her Sociology of Death and Dying students with a test of sorts on the first day of class.

“Everyone knows about death, right? So I give a Knowledge of Death quiz, and they get about three out of 30 questions right,” she says. “Then we talk through the answers and it’s always a ‘wow’ moment for them.”

Greater emphasis

Sporl and Ritter are ready to move the courses they’ve taught as special-topics electives into the mainstream of the department. They say that it’s a reflection of healthcare trends and that students pursuing a wide variety of careers can benefit from medical sociology courses.

An African American lady in a medical scrub shirt and jeans talks with an older female patient in her home.“Within the medical world, the sociological aspect had been neglected over past decades, as the focus has been on the biological,” Sporl says. “But even the CDC is reporting that so often, social aspects and behaviors influence people’s health just as much as genetic and biological components.”

Culley said most medical schools are either requiring or recommending sociology as a prerequisite, and Sporl said the Medical College Admission Test now includes a social science component.

Faculty say the medical sociology courses will benefit students thinking of becoming epidemiologists, social workers, patient-rights advocates and healthcare administrators, among other careers.

“Healthcare is at the forefront of everything these days, and it’s only going to continue to grow, so it makes sense that the medical emphasis is growing within sociology,” Ritter says. “I think it is really important that students now have a variety of ways to get into healthcare. They may start out in the hard sciences but later find out the activist side of things is a better fit for them.”

She and Sporl say they look forward to having students outside the sociology major try out the classes.

Culley is also talking them up to pre-nursing students and expects human services majors to also be interested in the medical emphasis.

Sporl and Ritter say that, depending on how many qualifying classes they can offer, the medical sociology minor might be an option for students graduating as soon as 2019.

Oct. 18, 2017