April 20, 2012
For nearly a century, the third year of medical school has been a pivotal point in training, a crucial step in the development of professional skills and attitudes toward patients. Recently, however, the tradition of monthlong “rotations” – a speed-dating introduction to the major disciplines of medicine and the issues patients face – has come under fire.
During their third year, medical students are under constant pressure to perform for an ever-changing group of senior physicians, who in turn must evaluate the students based on brief interactions. Sailing through as many as six disciplines in just under a year, students have opportunities for only transient relationships, garnering mere snapshots of their patients’ illnesses and lives.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that these experiences result in “ethical erosion.” Students’ sense of empathy and bedside manner deteriorate, and many begin to refer to their patients not as people but as diseases, that dehumanizing shorthand of the wards.
Now a growing number of educators are working to reinvent the crucial third year of medical school. A recent article in the journal Academic Medicine explains how one program has successfully eliminated traditional block rotations, promoting instead yearlong relationships between students and their patients and capitalizing on the patient-centered values and humanistic impulses that led the students to medicine in the first place.
Since 2004, the Harvard Medical School-Cambridge Integrated Clerkship has assigned every third-year medical student to a “panel” of up to 100 patients to care for over the course of the year. Students see their patients in the clinics of the Cambridge Health Alliance health system where the program is based, but also follow and assist with any outside consultations, admissions to the hospital, operations and even home visits. During the year, students are also required to shadow several assigned preceptors, senior physicians from the major specialties, in their clinics every week.