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Learning beyond the classroom

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


Studying medicine isn’t all about lectures and long hours in the lab or at the library, as students and Associate Dean for Student Affairs Nancy Angoff, M.P.H. ’81, M.D. ’90, HS ’93, explained at the alumni reunion in early June. During a panel discussion on “Medical Education Beyond the Classroom” students enthusiastically expounded on their extracurricular activities, from volunteerism and global health initiatives to student leadership and research. These experiences are giving students real-world applications for their medical knowledge, ideas for projects that benefit the community, and exposure to novel career paths.

According to panelist Jared Sun, Ph.D., about 40 percent of his fellow medical students do a rotation abroad, in line with Yale’s long tradition of international involvement. Students want to make a difference to improve health care, said Sun, and they have the freedom to go to almost any approved training site around the world, though most opt for Yale-affiliated programs in places like Uganda, Argentina, Borneo, and China. Sun earned his doctorate in emergency medicine from the University of Cape Town before coming to Yale, and said he hopes to return to South Africa.

An extracurricular focus on global health doesn’t require leaving the United States, or even New Haven, though. The city offers diverse linguistic and medical challenges, and one of the organizations that addresses them is the student-run HAVEN Free Clinic. One of the clinic’s co-directors, first year student James Smithy, said he wanted to feel like he was doing something meaningful early in his medical career. Besides offering primary care for the uninsured under the supervision of volunteer attendings, the clinic provides an interdisciplinary setting where medical, nursing, physician associate, public health, and undergraduate students can form relationships, partner with community organizations like the Fair Haven Community Health Center, and raise awareness on behalf of patients.

Coming from a management background at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, Smithy may be one of the students well-positioned to confront impending changes to the health care delivery system. Angoff stressed that Yale students are ready to face these challenges head on, and many do so by combining their MD with a business, law, or public health degree, which helps them learn the language needed to bridge medicine and negotiation. But many formative experiences in this arena come from involvement in student groups. MD/PhD students Dippy Bhattacharya and Sam Sondalle recounted how they have consulted with faculty as the curriculum is updated. Sondalle has worked for the inclusion of LGBTQ health topics in pre-clinical clerkships and in the new curriculum, as well as arranged a mentorship program that pairs first year and senior students within the MD/PhD program. Through the medical student council, Bhattacharya lobbied for a new student lounge that opened last year; he is also part of a peer advocate program that is the first line of support for stressed students.

The optional fifth year in the MD program further broadens learning possibilities outside the classroom. Students can pursue joint degrees, take clinical electives, work abroad, or some combination of these activities. A PhD in epidemiology and statistics is occupying panelist Emily Bucholz, who plans to pursue a pediatric cardiology specialty. Yale’s emphasis on research, she said, influences many of her peers to go into academia, though the clinical specialties they select vary widely from internal medicine to ophthalmology. Even areas that aren’t well-represented at Yale, like family medicine, are attracting students, said Bhattacharya, who would like to pursue primary care or pediatrics.

The flexibility afforded by Yale Medicine emerged as an important theme in the panel’s discussion, but Angoff added that the faculty temper this with oversight. “Students can go off, live their dreams, and find their passions, which is exactly what we want,” she said. “But we watch over their shoulders. We make sure their experiences are educationally rich.”