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Medical students to help shape new curriculum at regional campus

Penn State College of Medicine plans to flip medical education on its head and it will utilize the help of incoming students to do so.

Six to eight students will be selected to participate for a year in shaping a new curriculum at the College of Medicine’s regional campus in University Park. Students currently applying to the College can also apply to be considered to be design partners.

“We’re looking for people who have a creative mindset,” said Dr. Terry Wolpaw, vice dean for educational affairs. “We want student design partners who can embrace innovation, who are willing to think in fresh new ways about medical education, who will very much enjoy and want to partner side-by-side with faculty, and who are willing to be trailblazers with new techniques and new ideas.”

Design partners will work with faculty for a year to test the new curriculum to see what works, what doesn’t and what can be done better.

The student participants will receive a stipend during the year that they work as design partners and will receive scholarship aid starting in July 2017 when they begin medical school.

“We’re going to create a new curriculum for medical school and have these people actually experience it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wong, associate dean for medical education at the regional campus. “They’re going to come back and tell us what works, tell us what doesn’t work, and hopefully provide suggestions and alternative for improving it.

“By the time the next year rolls around, where we’ve had one year to pilot all these different ideas, we’ll have something that’s going to be ready for students arriving in 2017.”

The regional campus is currently home to a small number of medical students who spent the first part of their medical education in Hershey and are now at University Park for their core and elective clinical experiences. The educational leadership plans to expand from a partial curriculum to a full curriculum to allow students to have their full medical school experience at the University Park campus.

Wolpaw believes the regional campus is an ideal place for the proposed curriculum to be implemented.

“It is extraordinary to have the very credible resources of Penn State at the students’ finger tips, surrounded by the foothills of Appalachia, where they can experience really important areas of underserved patient care in community engaged medicine,” she said. “That’s a really wonderful opportunity for students who are interested in that kind of medicine and medical experience.”

The program is part of the College of Medicine’s ongoing initiatives to meet the needs of the healthcare system and of future practitioners.

“Medical education hasn’t really changed much in a hundred years and yet the healthcare system has changed enormously,” Wolpaw said.

The curriculum will also integrate the students’ clinical experiences with their textbook learning from the first day of medical school.

In the current traditional model, often referred to as the 2+2 Model, students learn their sciences for the first two years after which they are immersed in clinical experiences.

“One of our goals would be to immerse the students into experiences with patients right from the start so they can build a scaffold of human experience and simultaneously learn their sciences so that the science and the human experience – the health and the illness – can be learned side by side,” Wolpaw said.

“We plan to have students immersed in clinical and service projects within the community here— in doctors’ offices and in hospitals and perhaps in other social service agencies,” Wong said. “It really helps people become better physicians when they’re immersed in real-life situations because they understand not only the needs of the patient from the scientific and medical standpoint, but what factors in the community are adding to or detracting from the ability of the patient to get better.”

Students will be given an opportunity to work with patients and then use those real life experiences in small group discussions to stimulate exploration and inquiry into the biomedical, social and health system sciences.

Patient care is delivered by interdisciplinary, interprofessional teams, but doctors are trained to be independent practitioners.

“Our belief is that people learn best by experiencing and really being involved in their subject rather than sitting passively and hearing it in huge lecture halls, which has been the norm forever,” Wong said. “One of the realizations of those of us in medical education is that the way that we all were trained doesn’t necessarily prepare doctors to be active participants to the fullest extent that they can be.

“Penn State Hershey is one of the schools in the forefront of looking at the patient in a holistic way – not all medical schools around the country do that.”

Educators at the College of Medicine took inspiration from “A Whole New Engineer,” a book chronicling Olin College of Engineering students working alongside faculty and helping shape the institution’s engineering curriculum in the year prior to its opening.

Wolpaw said there are many parallels to medical education in the Olin story.

“What Olin talked about in this book was that engineering education had really not been changed in many, many years and yet the world’s a different place,” Wolpaw said.

“They wanted their engineering students to go in and start being creative right away,” Wong said. “ Then, through those experiences and through those failures they would have impetus to go back and learn the fundamentals that they need — sort of turning the whole idea of traditional engineering education on its head – and they used student design partners to create the very first curriculum.”

That idea resonated with Wolpaw and when the regional campus was created, the faculty talked about doing something similar.

“We think, based on Olin’s experience, that there are students out there who would really love to be involved in this kind of a design challenge for medical education,” Wolpaw said.

If successful, portions of the curriculum could be adapted for use at the Hershey campus.

“If we find something that really makes sense, we would want to let all the students take advantage of it if we can figure out a way to make it work in a large setting as well as a small setting,” Wolpaw said.

“We really hope to create a prototypical model for how primary care physicians should be trained in the 21st century,” Wong said. “Our belief is that the way we’ve been doing it to date at huge academic medical centers in a preclinical and clinical dichotomous fashion doesn’t necessarily work,” Wong said.

-Jade Kelly Solovey

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