February 16, 2012

Series lets undergrads explore new ideas

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John Seibert, M.D., (standing) speaks to Vanderbilt undergraduate students during a recent Commons Seminar focused on how medicine is portrayed on TV and in the movies. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Series lets undergrads explore new ideas

This semester, Vanderbilt University Medical Center physicians are taking their expertise across 21st Avenue to teach undergraduates at The Commons, the living and learning community for first-year students.

Called Commons Seminars, these elective courses allow students to explore academic disciplines. Capped at 15 students, the classes range from “Men, Masculinities and American Sports” to “Apocalypse Now? Modern Maya and Ancient Prophecies” to “The Meaning of Time (and the Possibility of Time Travel).”

For VUMC physicians, the Commons Seminars offer a rare opportunity to teach undergraduates, and they appreciate the change of scenery from clinics and operating rooms to classrooms of eager young students.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air when we go over there,” said William Obremskey, M.D., MPH, associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation, who is teaching “Healthcare in America: Where Have We Come From and Where Are We Going?” with colleagues in Orthopaedic Surgery.

“We think it’s very important for the leaders of tomorrow to understand health care because it’s tied into education, employment and the future of the country. But to understand how it’s going to change, you need to know its history, and we think physicians are the best people to teach that,” said Manish Sethi, M.D., assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation.

After one class session, student Oliver Patten said “They’re doctors but they also know health policy. It’s great to have a lecture taught by someone who knows the system.”

“This topic is so pertinent in the world today and it’s great it’s being offered,” added student Charlotte Weiss.

The course brings in guest speakers from all aspects of health care – physicians, government officials, private sector leaders and even patients to discuss aspects of health care policy and reform. At the end of the course, students will write a memo to President Obama proposing a specific change to health care policy.

“We thought it would be a bunch of pre-med students, but the majority are interested in law or humanities or policy,” said Alex Jahangir, M.D., assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation. “These students really recognize the importance of this even if they’re not pre-med. This really pulls at something and gives them the tools to start thinking independently about these issues.”

William Petrie, M.D., professor of Clinical Psychiatry, is leading “The Biology of Mental Illness,” an introduction to illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and drug and alcohol abuse that includes patient interviews and visits to the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital and Institute of Imaging Science.

“We think mental illness occurs in 20-30 percent of the population, but the average person has no awareness of it even though it could be going on in their own family,” Petrie said.

The students are reading “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness,” about Vanderbilt graduate Elyn Saks’ experience with schizophrenia. They have also discussed popular cases like John Hinckley and Abraham Lincoln.

“There is a disconnect between our level of knowledge about physical illness compared to mental illness,” Petrie said. “I have somewhat of a mission to help people understand mental illness. I told the students they will use their textbook as a reference for the rest of their lives.”

John Seibert, M.D., and Steven Goudy, M.D., both assistant professors of Otolaryngology, are teaching “The Changing Face of Medicine in Film: Marcus Welby to Sicko.”

Seibert is quick to point out that the Latin root of doctor means “to teach,” and draws on his experience as an undergraduate major in education and history to lead students in an examination of how physicians have been viewed by society.

“I love the way history is portrayed and can be experienced through film,” he said. “In this course we’re using film as medium to go into many areas — anatomy, disease, ethics, clichés. Each week has a theme, like the darker side of medicine, benevolent institutions and minorities in medicine.”

During each class, a pair of students presents major themes and discussion questions about that week’s assigned films, which include “The Citadel,” “No Way Out,” “Healing by Killing” and “Young Dr. Kildare.” Goudy and Seibert raise ethical questions and give mini lessons on typhoid or stomach ulcer surgery. The textbook for the course is “Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah” by Peter Dans.

“I read the book and thought it needed to be taught in a course. I could see altering it for medical students and residents. It’s a great way to examine how medicine fits in the historical context and how physicians are received by the public,” Seibert said. “Who knows if these students will be in medicine, but hopefully they can connect to this information now and later in life.”