Today’s healthcare system faces immense challenges—from a shortage of physicians, to millions of people lacking access to care, to the burden of chronic diseases with no cure.
Ensuring that the next generation of doctors learn and train in ways that will enable them to meet the demands of a rapidly changing healthcare environment is critical as we prepare them to care for the nation’s growing, aging and more diverse population. America’s medical schools, teaching hospitals, and research institutions—known collectively as academic medicine—are working to do just that.
For doctors to be healers, they need to know more than memorized facts about biology, chemistry and anatomy. Even before they arrive at medical school, future physicians are now evaluated on their knowledge of cultural and social differences, social stratification, and factors that influence communication and behavior.
As part of this shift, the Association of American Medical Colleges introduced a new Medical College Admission Test in 2015 that included a section to assess a student’s understanding of behavioral and social sciences. The core of our profession, after all, is the human interaction between doctor and patient.
To practice these skills, medical schools are using the power of technology to enhance learning, such as high-tech mannequins in operating-room settings, simulation labs for teaching anatomy with 3D graphics, and advances in virtual reality. Done right, the use of technology can help us improve skills while refocusing on the humanism at the core of medicine.
Medical education has seen a paradigm shift over the last two decades, with medical schools continuing to innovate the way students learn. Today, many schools have eliminated some, if not all, lecture hall classes and replaced them with new models of active learning—small-group case studies, peer-to-peer teaching and simulation labs—all with the goal of tying the clinical to the scientific.
A particularly important goal of small-group teaching is fostering critical thinking and lifelong learning skills, as well as focusing on integrative application that goes beyond the acquisition of knowledge. Learning is now evaluated by competencies, or the mastery of core proficiencies, that cover everything from patient care to communication skills to improving clinical practice.
Medical schools also are adapting curricula to prepare tomorrow’s physicians to address some of today’s most pressing healthcare crises, such as the opioid epidemic. And they are providing opportunities for students to learn through community outreach programs and experiences that have been shown to impact educational outcomes in the socio-economic factors that influence health.
A team-based approach is another key to providing compassionate, quality care, and the AAMC is collaborating with nurses, pharmacists, psychologists and other allied health professionals to integrate medical training so that patient-centered care becomes more than just a catchphrase. Medical schools also are experimenting with new models of academic progression. Not only are more schools offering three-year programs, but some are extending the time frame for graduation to five or six years to accommodate students’ individual aspirations, be it to pursue a master’s degree in public health or conduct clinical research.
Much has changed since the Flexner report, commonly considered the blueprint for modern medical education, was published more than 100 years ago. More than half of those entering medical school today are women. And medical schools are incorporating the holistic review of applicants—which looks beyond test scores to consider experiences, attributes and academic achievements—as well as supporting programs to reduce debt or offer free tuition to increase the number of minority students in medicine.
We still have a long way to go. But as we look to the next 100 years, we know that future generations of medical students and researchers will benefit from the tremendous progress that has been made at our nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals to prepare physicians and researchers to meet the healthcare needs of all Americans.