Outside Looking In

Connecting beyond the classroom brings new perspectives for medical students and the communities they serve



Early exposure to medical science may increase the likelihood that minority elementary school children will choose health care professions later in life.

36,000 geriatricians will be needed within 25 years. Sparking an interest in geriatrics while students are in medical school may be the answer.

While academic achievement is the main focus of students at Washington University School of Medicine, many also spend their free time learning through participation in dozens of programs and activities in the surrounding community. This past spring, students participated in two pilot programs that reached two very different populations — older adults and minority elementary school children. The programs provided the students with the opportunity for immeasurable professional and personal growth as well as a chance to apply their inherent compassion for the community in which they live.

About 30 School of Medicine students, including those from physical therapy and occupational therapy, taught a mini-medicine course to kindergarteners, first-graders and second-graders at Adams Elementary School in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood of St. Louis. Lessons included the senses, dissection, the skeletal system and the nervous system, and provided hands-on activities that allowed each child to participate.

Children at Adams Elementary School in St. Louis' Forest Park Southeast neighborhood listen and ask questions during a mini-medicine course taught by first-year medical students Michelle Rhodes, left, and Saroj Fleming.

In the nervous system lesson, the students used rubber hammers to test their reflexes. In the dissection lesson, they learned about the anatomy of the eye by dissecting a cow's eyeball.

The program to introduce minority elementary school students to medicine and spark their interest in health care professions was developed by the university's Center for Health Policy, which has focused on eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in health care. Research shows that interest in medicine by these children starts to drop off by the third grade.

"It is our hope that this early and effective introduction will positively influence career choices and improve literacy in the future," says William A. Peck, MD, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Medicine and director of the Center for Health Policy.

Craig Press, a student in the university's MD/PhD program, and Debbie Chase, a senior consultant at the Center for Health Policy, developed the idea for the mini-medicine course after meeting at a lecture by Will Ross, MD, associate dean for diversity and director of the Office of Diversity, about inequality in U.S. health care for minorities and the lack of minority doctors. Press says he believes this is the only education program in which medical students can work with early elementary children in minority neighborhoods.

"The younger kids haven't been exposed to some of these things, so you see the wonder in their eyes when you do something 'Mr. Wizard-like,'" Press says. "We want them to make the connection between Mr. Wizard and being a doctor, so hopefully they'll see medicine as a career possibility."

Press says the experience reinforced the idea behind the effort — to make a long-term impression on children with a short-term exposure to careers in medicine, occupational therapy and physical therapy. "In just four hours a year, we can have a profound impact," he says.

The Vital Visionaries program pairs students with senior citizens. First-year medical student Maggie Young and OASIS member Karen Levine work together on an art project at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.

On the other end of the age spectrum, older adults spent several sessions making art with first-year medical students through a program funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging.

This pilot program was based on research showing that medical students who interact with older adults early in their training develop better attitudes toward aging.

Through the course, called Vital Visionaries, 15 first-year medical students and 15 healthy adults over age 65 from The OASIS Institute studied art at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

The medical students were randomly paired with an older adult in the first class and worked together in the subsequent sessions on various art pieces.

Stephen S. Lefrak, MD, professor of medicine and assistant dean for the Humanities Program in Medicine, developed the course with the help of Marylen Mann, founder and chairman of OASIS; Bunny Burson, liaison with the National Institute on Aging; and Amy Enkelmann-Reed, project coordinator.

Lefrak says the goal of the Vital Visionaries program is to kindle interest in geriatric medicine and to improve future doctors' attitudes toward older people.

"Young medical students look at people in their 60s, 70s and 80s as ancient, with little vitality and quality of life," says Lefrak. "How do you get them to see that there is a common ground between them?"

The answer in this case was art.

"We're not trying to teach students about art, but common humanity," says Lefrak. "It's to change their perception and show them they can connect with older people in the same way they connect with friends their own age."

Reaching out to the community
A variety of outreach programs provides opportunities for students to enhance classroom learning.

  • Drug Education Program
  • Perinatal Program
  • Students Teaching AIDS to Students
  • Student-Organized Clinic
  • Geriatrics Outreach
  • Community CPR
  • Smoking Cessation
  • Public Health Interest Group
  • Young Scientist Program
  • Reproductive Health Education Program
  • Mental Health Outreach Program