November 7, 2003

VUSM to pursue new frontier in education

Featured Image

Marilyn A. Dubree and Dr. C. Wright Pinson are co-leaders for the initiative to eliminate paper-based processes from inpatient areas at VUMC. Anne Rayner

VUSM to pursue new frontier in education

It’s no secret that Vanderbilt medical students bring a variety of passions outside of science with them to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The group is among the best in the country, well-rounded with many outside interests. In part, that’s why they were selected for admission to VUSM.

The school has always helped students pursue their interests. To inspire the student scientists, the medical school has offered a required first-year Introduction to Biomedical Research class for several years, in hopes that some medical students will gravitate toward a research career.

And for those who have outside interests beyond science, the students have been supported by the administration who has helped them find ways to do community outreach through the Community Scholar program.

But now the medical school has undertaken a more formal approach to helping students become reflective self-learners and develop the skills of leadership and scholarship, important qualities the faculty and administration believe a physician should possess. Beginning with the entering class of 2004, the medical school will offer the new Emphasis Program, a two-year program of self-directed study. Students will develop and pursue a project in one of eight areas related to medicine in order to gain skills and knowledge that will contribute to their medical careers.

A student’s area of interest will be matched with those of a growing group of faculty mentors. Each student will cultivate knowledge and skill through the mentor relationships as well as hands-on research and study in his or her desired focus area.

The eight focus options are: biomedical informatics, community health initiatives and health outreach, education, healthcare research and management, laboratory-based biomedical research, law, medical humanities and patient-oriented research.

“The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine is firmly committed to train future leaders and scholars in medicine,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of VUSM. “This process includes the ability to recognize and understand the challenges facing medicine, as well as the vision and skill to address these challenges.”

The program will require students to spend some of the summer between their first and second years in Nashville working on their project. They will be paid a stipend for that effort.

During the fall semester of their first year, new medical students will meet one afternoon a week to select their area of emphasis and identify a project that is to be completed by the end of the two-year program. In the spring, they will spend two afternoons a week concentrating on the program, and during the summer between the first and second years, students will devote at least eight weeks to their project. The students will continue to meet two afternoons a week during the fall semester of their second year working on their projects, reports, publishable papers and presentations. During the spring semester of the second year, for two afternoons a week, students will complete their project reports and make presentations to area faculty and first-year students who will have already started their own projects.

The Emphasis Program has been under development at VUSM for the past two years since a Curriculum Review committee was formed in 2001. The group was charged with “thinking outside the box.” A steering committee of key decision makers in the medical school and a planning committee of leaders of each of the focus areas have met since on a regular basis to develop the program. Eighteen current VUSM students have been involved in planning the program.

“Our main goal is to help our students develop skills of leadership and scholarship,” said Dr. Gerald S. Gotterer, senior associate dean for Faculty and Academic Administrative Affairs. “The program seeks to capitalize on the special interests that VUSM students bring to medical school or they wish to cultivate. It will provide students the opportunity to enrich their knowledge and skills in these areas in ways that will be applicable to their future careers in medicine,” he said.

Deciding that the medical school needed to offer this type of program was the easy part, said Dr. Bonnie M. Miller, associate dean for Medical Students. Deciding how to construct the program was more time consuming, she said.

“We have always looked for students with that kind of passion, but how do you nurture these passions once the students arrive? We can’t just have flashing neon signs that say ‘we train leaders and scholars,’” Miller said. “We have to provide a substantial experience to help them develop those skills and habits necessary for leadership and scholarship in medicine. We want to give them the opportunity to define an interest and run with it.”

Dr. Denis M. O’Day, professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, serves as course director of the program. “Our goal is to help our students become reflective self-learners,” he said. “We want them to have the ability to reflect on where they are, where they need to go, and how to get there. That will be the pattern they will follow for the rest of their careers.”

O’Day, who stepped down last year as chair of Ophthalmology, has had a longstanding career in medical education at Vanderbilt since 1972. He has helped recruit more than 60 faculty members as mentors for the Emphasis Program.

Gotterer said the focus on a particular area will promote the process of self-reflection by allowing students to work with mentors, keep a portfolio and journal of what they’re doing and work on a project in their selected area of focus.

Miller said the medical school will be as flexible as possible in working around students’ summer schedules. “While we consider this a requirement, we’ll be flexible in working with an individual student’s needs. We have students with Armed Forces scholarships and those with interests in international medicine, who use the summer for these commitments and interests. We’ll try to keep that in mind.”

O’Day said he believes the program will be “immensely fulfilling” for students. “It’s a very different approach to a medical school curriculum because it looks at a broad range of attributes that students can develop and nurture, all contributing to their ability to be leaders and scholars,” he said.

A faculty member has been appointed to head each area of emphasis: Dr. Kevin Johnson, Biomedical Informatics; Barbara Clinton, Community Health Initiatives and Outreach; Don Moore, Ph.D., Education; Dr. Robert Dittus, Healthcare Research and Management; Lillian Nanney, Ph.D., Laboratory-based Research; Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, Law and Medicine; Larry Churchill, Ph.D., Medical Humanities, Dr. Kathryn Edwards, Patient-Oriented Research.

Each area is broadly defined, allowing students to focus on particular areas of interest. For example, along with other options, students can study obstacles to health care for the underserved, medical malpractice, informed consent, and literature and medicine.

“The Emphasis Program is going to open up a lot of opportunities for incoming students,” said Katherine Koepke, a third-year student who has served on the medical school’s curriculum committee for the past three years. “Our previous choice for anything extra has been lab-based only, so this will present different opportunities in different types of research. Students will be able to explore a variety of career options and develop skills other than just clinical skills.”