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Medical Education
A new prescription for medical education

Marybeth Saxton

Illustration by Ralph Kelliher

Marybeth Sexton adjusted her black cap as she stood in line with her fellow medical school graduates this past May. She and others chatted about their upcoming residencies and summer vacation plans as they waited outside Emory’s Glenn Memorial Church for commencement to begin. They seemed to pay little attention to the historic nature of the day.  

Though the medical school dean likes to say that every graduating class is special, this particular one will go into the history books. The class of 2011 is the first class to graduate under the school’s new curriculum—one that was envisioned eight years ago as a new way to educate future doctors.

Across the country, a number of top-tier medical schools have overhauled their curricula to meet a medical landscape that has changed drastically in the past decade. Students today need to be prepared for continually evolving technology, care that is more “patient-centered” in the context of clinician shortages, an aging population, increased attention to health policy, diminishing reimbursements—the list goes on and on.

Before this year’s class joined the ranks, Emory’s medical alumni predominantly sat through traditional lecture-based courses their first two years, with patient contact largely confined to the second half of the medical curriculum. Emory’s new curriculum throws tradition to the wind, with less focus on disease and more emphasis on patients. Old-school courses have given way to more engaging modules that go from person to cell on topics such as aging and cardiology, where students not only learn the science of disease but also work with patients to understand first-hand experiences. Students also had more outpatient experience than previous classes to mimic how most doctors see patients.

“I liked that the curriculum was designed to be ‘systems-based,” says Sexton, now an internal medicine resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia University Medical Center. “Instead of studying microbiology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology separately, we would focus on cardiology, for example, and examine how each of those topics related to the heart. We would have lectures on bacterial infections of heart valves, the causes of coronary artery disease, and drug treatments for high blood pressure. Studying the material in that way gave me a great framework for evaluating patients in the hospital later on.”     

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