How Medical School Design is Shifting to Address Healthcare’s Most Pressing Needs

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Medical students listening sitting at desk at the university

By Laura Welke, PhD, Campus Dean, Western Atlantic University School of Medicine

Healthcare is one of the major success stories of our times. That being said, the United States has what is arguably the most complex healthcare system in the world. As a result, it can be difficult for new approaches to gain traction within the industry given the many factors and sometimes roadblocks involved in implementing and enforcing change. Complex and slow-to-change policies are one obvious factor, but environmental and technological factors are also contributing to changes in healthcare. 

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During these uncertain times, medical education has remained robust and grounded in the foundational values of compassion, professionalism, and excellence in patient care. The pandemic has taught us to embrace change and to be agile. We are finding ways to incorporate novel technology to meet the needs of learners and to engage in scholarly work that informs and enhances the delivery of care to all patients equitably and without barriers. From curricular changes that incorporate healthcare disparities to a new model of teaching that better prepares students for the complexities of the medical field, medical education continues to adapt to address our most pressing needs. 

Embracing Technology – A Necessity Post-COVID

The pandemic provided a catalyst and opportunity for us as medical educators to embrace new technology and be innovative in how we teach. Because we had to go online for many things, it forced a shift in our focus to online and remote modalities. This was a blessing in disguise in some ways because we discovered that certain elements of the curriculum worked better online via, for example, Zoom, than it would have in the classroom. It allowed faculty to become nimbler and more creative in how they delivered the material in a remote or semi-remote environment and be receptive to new delivery applications and software.

As challenging as it was, the necessity of this change led to many innovations. Residents and fellows benefited not only from observing local clinicians; they could also watch lecturers from across the nation via video-based platforms. Virtual chalkboards, which let remote users collaborate digitally, and other technologies provided a canvas for innovative, engaging ways of teaching. Asynchronous learning experiences meant lectures and presentations could be pre-recorded, supplemented with other digital materials, and viewed and responded to when they fit students’ schedules.

New Era of Healthcare Calls for New Curriculums 

Aside from innovations in medical education, academic medicine is also at the forefront of leading innovations in medical discovery and healthcare delivery. Medical schools’ and teaching hospitals’ leadership in propelling such innovations go hand in hand with the educational experience for the next generation of physicians. No environment is better suited and more committed to preparing the physician workforce for the healthcare system of the future than the very institutions pioneering such transformations. As new performance metrics are created, tested, and evaluated, these data will demonstrate the increasing ability of new physicians to work in teams, facilitate system changes to improve population health, and foster continuous quality improvement in care delivery. 

The medical school curriculum continues to adapt value-based learning curricula that provide students with the academic knowledge, clinical skills, and patient-centered focus needed to lead within one’s place of practice and community. Through a student-centered, active learning approach, individuals learn to connect theory to practice and acquire the tools to become an outstanding, patient-centered physician of the future.

At the forefront of these educational changes is Western Atlantic University School of Medicine (WAUSM). WAUSM currently uses an innovative method of teaching focused on a “flipped classroom” in which students learn the concepts and subject matter prior to class time and spend their time in the classroom conducting hands-on activities that allow them to demonstrate these concepts. This teaching method shifts away from traditional lecture-based education and instead provides students with an opportunity to apply the concepts of the curriculum throughout the semester. These activities, such as a medical emergency simulation within WAUSM’s state-of-the-art Simulation Center, are gearing up the future physicians of the world with not only the necessary knowledge to become a physician, but also the experience needed to become critical thinkers and leaders within the space.

Breaking Down Siloes 

Traditionally at medical school, there are separate departments and individual faculty develop and lead their own lectures for medical students. A typical day could consist of a morning sequence of lectures on, for example, anatomy, then physiology, then biochemistry all related to the cardiovascular system. Lab sessions related to the topic usually occur in the afternoon. With this model, students are learning valuable material but there are few integrated connections being made throughout the day. 

At WAUSM, we take a very different approach and have one unified department, the Department of Medical Education, that is made up of content and discipline experts, but it’s one department working together. We don’t have the discipline silos of anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, etc. Rather, our faculty work together in groups to help our students connect the dots between various disciplines. For example, most of our in-class application sessions are workshops and our faculty will teach in integrated teams (not on an individual basis). So, in a session such as “Integrated Control of the Cardiovascular System” we are able to take it a level deeper to weave together the physiology, anatomy, conditions of the heart, treatments for various diseases, etc. Our primary focus is on active learning methodologies that include everything from” think, pair, share”, didactic games, to guided learning and discussions in teams within the classroom. All of this serves to create a highly integrated study program across disciplines.

Moving Forward

Medicine is a field that attracts people who want to have an impact, and this desire can be harnessed to improve medical education. The character traits of today’s medical students can potentially be harnessed to good ends, such as helping others through medicine. Excellence in medical education resembles evolution in that it advances by providing an opportunity to and ensuring the training of, physicians that will meet a diverse, dynamic, and evolving population. 

As we emerge from COVID-19, we must remain committed to the ongoing redesign of educational programs that benefit students and trainees while putting the patient in the center of these efforts. We must learn from the lessons of this past year and move forward with the same flexibility, freedom, and creativity that helped us adapt on the fly, yielding quality improvement of medical education throughout the spectrum of training. After all the disruptions that the pandemic forced on traditional medical school and graduate medical education in the past year, can anything be gained? We now have a unique opportunity to transform medical education and ensure that we equip the next generation of physicians with the tools to fulfill the social compact of medicine.

About Laura Welke, PhD, Campus Dean, Western Atlantic University School of Medicine

An expert in the fields of anatomy and neurobiology, Laura completed her doctoral work in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Boston University School of Medicine. Following the completion of her PhD, she held a faculty appointment in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at SUNY Downstate Medical School. Laura comes to WAUSM from Ross University School of Medicine, where she held several leadership positions, including Vice Chair for the Department of Anatomy, Neuroscience Course Director, and Assistant Dean of Medical Sciences Faculty Affairs. Laura has received numerous accolades and awards for her work teaching medical school students.

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