The next generation of physicians is learning much differently from how established doctors once did. Training has shifted from an acute focus on disease to a wider approach that considers patients within the larger context of their community and society. Although many, like myself, see this as progress, others have expressed doubts about this and many other changes.
Amid the madness that is the year 2020, I’m grateful to have a moment to reflect on this subject. Five years ago, in celebration of Medscape’s 20th anniversary, I spoke with various leaders in medical education to learn how. Since then, I’ve gone from student to faculty. This year, for Medscape’s 25th anniversary, I reached out to current medical trainees to reflect on how much things have changed in such a short time.
From adjustments forced on us by COVID-19 to trends that predated the pandemic – including an increased emphasis on social justice and a decreased emphasis on other material – becoming a doctor no longer looks like it did just a half-decade ago.
Social justice is now in the curricula
More than ever, medical training has shifted toward humanism, population health, and social justice. Students are now being shown not only how to treat the patient in front of them but how to “treat” the larger communities they serve. Research skills around social drivers of health, such as structural racism, are increasingly becoming status quo.
In reflecting on her current experience, Emily Kahoud, a third-year medical student at New Jersey Medical School, Newark, told me about a course she took that was devoted to health equity. She applauded how her professors have incorporated this education into their courses. “It’s so nice and refreshing to be in a community that appreciates that.”
I, too, have seen this change firsthand. In addition to caring for patients and teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I work with a team that develops curricula around social justice. We strive to integrate this material into existing courses and rotations. I believe that this is not only the right thing to teach trainees in order to help their future patients, but that it also reduces harm that many students experience. The “hidden curriculum” of medical school has long marginalized anyone who isn’t White and/or male.
Children, women, and the elderly were often referred to as “special populations” during my training. Even now, content about social and structural drivers of health is still most often relegated to separate courses rather than integrated into existing material. I hope to help improve this at my institution and that others are doing the same elsewhere.
If the current students I spoke with are any indication, further integration will be a welcomed change. Travis Benson, a third-year medical student at Harvard Medical School, Boston, appreciates where medical training is headed. Specifically, he is interested in inequities in the care of transgender patients. He says he has loved what his school has done with education on issues not previously considered part of med ed. “In the first week of school, we go on tours and spend time in community health centers and learn about the ‘Family Van,’ a mobile health care clinic that offers free care. I even had an opportunity to have a longitudinal clinic experience at a jail.”
While some critics argue that this learning goes too far, others argue that it has not gone far enough fast enough. In general, I consider the progress made in this area since my time in med school to be a very good thing. Medical students are now being taught to think about the science of medicine in the context of the larger human condition.