Skip to content

Student design partners help shape the future for fellow medical students


Student design partners are helping shape the future curriculum at Penn State College of Medicine. The design partners are, from left,  Jason Spicher, Vanessa Vides, Morgan Decker, Tom Laux and Duncan McDermond.

By Carolyn Kimmel

When Duncan McDermond studied abroad in a rural African hospital during college, he saw firsthand the correlation between doctors who live among their patients and their ability to understand, gain trust and ultimately provide better medical care.

It’s that kind of holistic approach to medicine that drew McDermond to apply for an innovative program where students are helping to shape Penn State College of Medicine’s curriculum.

“If medical providers do not understand the needs of a community, they will be inherently less effective at treating them,” said McDermond, a Messiah College graduate who is interested in carrying on the legacy of his grandfather, a missionary doctor, who founded the rural hospital in Zambia where he studied abroad.

The ability of firsthand experience to inform and reinforce education is nothing new, but at the College of Medicine, the idea is being given top priority in a first-of-its-kind initiative that could serve as a national model to transform how medicine is taught.

McDermond and four other student design partners – students who have been accepted to the College of Medicine but will defer enrollment until the fall of 2017 – are now College of Medicine employees at University Park. They will work with faculty to develop and pilot a flexible and integrated program of study.

“Our educational innovation ‘flips’ the entire medical school,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wong, associate dean for medical education at University Park. “Rather than worrying about how the medical school should present information to its medical students, our curriculum is focused on providing real-life opportunities within the health care system for students to experience care of and for patients.”

From now through next fall, the student design partners will connect with people at supermarkets, fairs, festivals and church functions, work at regional health clinics and bring the knowledge they gain back to campus.

“There’s a nationwide call to take a deeper and harder look at medical education across the country and ask, ‘How can we make some changes?” said Julie Gill, director of regional campus innovation.

The changes call for a step away from the traditional two years of coursework followed by two years of clinical experience in favor of students immersing themselves in hands-on experiential learning from the beginning.

“The philosophy is that they will get to know the area and all the pieces that connect to healthcare so well that they will have a better sense of who lives there and what impacts care,” she said. “We hope this becomes a mindset that students carry with them wherever they practice.”

The community connection excites the student design partners most.

“I believe that it is much more difficult to gain the extraordinary breadth and depth of information required of physicians without actually utilizing that content,” said Thomas Laux, who spent the last two years teaching at a boarding school in Jordan. “My goal isn’t to pass a test or write a great essay response. My goal is to improve the health and happiness of patients in my community, and I feel that actually interacting with patients in my community is vital to reaching that goal.

Jason Spicher spent a year after graduating from Eastern Mennonite University volunteering with the Mennonite Voluntary Service in a public health department in rural Colorado.

“While working in public health last year, we focused a lot on community assessments and vulnerable populations, so I’m excited to see this work being prioritized in a medical school curriculum,” he said. “I believe if we can train providers to understand the culture and demographics of the area that they’re serving, they’ll have better relationships with patients and may lead to better health outcomes.”

In discussion with physicians about their medical school experiences, Spicher said most of them told him, in retrospect, they wished for more clinical learning time with medical providers.

“With that advice, I was attracted to the idea of experiential learning early on in the clinical setting,” he said.

“This awareness and appreciation of the varying and unique populations of my community has allowed me to best address the healthcare and cultural needs that can be incorporated into a curriculum that not only fosters humanistic and adept physicians, but also allows us to perpetuate a culture of respect,” said student design partner Vanessa Vides. “A career in medicine isn’t a job; it is a commitment to the humanistic and holistic care of a person, and it is this sort of culture, intrinsic to medicine, that I want to perpetuate and be part of.”

 Morgan Decker, a Centre County native and graduate of Juniata College, said she already has some innovative ideas that she would like to see included in curriculum.

“I would like to incorporate a component that helps medical students better understand the medical system. For example, having a comprehensive understanding of medical insurance is beneficial when working with patients,” she said. “Also, I would like to explore learning through humanities, such as art and music. I think there is value in deviating from science-based learning, especially with personal and professional development.”

McDermond dreams of a curriculum that counters the “empathy loss” many students experience. “I would hope that future students are capable of seeing the patient not just as a case study or a number but as a person with a unique background. A common problem with the current structure of medical school is  . . . for whatever reason, students have grown calloused to the many cases they have seen and may not be able to connect with future patients,” he said.

The idea for the student design partners program was originally published in a book called, “A Whole New Engineer,” written by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville, according to Wong.  It is the story of Olin College of Engineering, which was striving to create an innovative way of training engineers and used design partners to help design the first year of their curriculum.

Penn State College of Medicine began scouting efforts among a sub-set of accepted students who indicated an interest in the program. From 18 candidates, five students were invited to participate.

“There were a number of characteristics that we looked for, but strong interpersonal skills, courage, grit and creativity all describe the five design partners,” Wong said.

Involving newly-accepted students vs. current students was intentional, Gill said. “They’re coming in with fresh eyes and they have very open-minded perspectives and fresh views. That’s a very important part of why we chose to do it this way,” she said.

Participation in the student design program comes with pretty impressive benefits – the students will each receive a scholarship covering half of their medical school tuition and housing expenses.

“The generous scholarship awarded to us is really incredible. As an older non-traditional student, the idea of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans out to pay for my medical education was extremely daunting,” Vides said. “I am beyond grateful and feel extremely fortunate.”

Echoes Decker, “It’s difficult to express in words how thankful I am. This scholarship will lessen the burden of loans, which will ultimately allow for me to focus on learning and not my financial status. I never imagined that I would be in this position.”

This program comes as the College of Medicine prepares to offer a full medical school curriculum at University Park next fall. The expanding curriculum University Park is the latest example of how the College of Medicine is striving to meet the nation’s evolving healthcare needs, while also providing flexibility and individualized learning for students.

The students themselves are, at times, awestruck by the opportunity that is theirs to touch the future of medical education in this country.

“To be apart of a team where every single person is so diligently and actively working towards the same goal is really inspiring,” Vides said. “It feels like I am a part of a family working cohesively to try to create something that will improve the lives of their future generations, except in this case our goal is to foster and prepare physicians in a way that has never been done before.”

Added Laux, “I’m feeling extremely fortunate to be in the position I’m in now as a student design partner. I have been experiencing the additional joy of knowing that my work goes beyond me, that if I push myself I may be able to influence the medical education of future learners and of the field itself. It’s been a humbling and delightful experience. “

If you're having trouble accessing this content, or would like it in another format, please email the Penn State College of Medicine web department.