The University of Chicago's medical school transforms its curriculum

October 13, 2008

In order to inspire the next generation of physicians, the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine is launching the Pritzker Initiative, a new curriculum designed to transform medical education at the school. The initiative will increase student-faculty interactions, reduce the number of large lecture classes and replace them with small-group, hands-on learning under the direct mentorship of renowned faculty physicians, researchers and clinical educators.

"Through the Pritzker Initiative, students will learn medicine at the cutting edge of biomedical science, translate that science into direct patient care and acquire the moral foundation of the profession as they prepare to become future doctors and leaders," said Holly Humphrey, Professor of Medicine and Dean for Medical Education at the Pritzker School of Medicine. "During an era of fragmented health care delivery system, it is increasingly urgent that future physicians develop mastery in these fundamental areas. These are the kinds of doctors our patients deserve."

The goal of the Pritzker Initiative is to improve education for the next generation of leaders in all aspects of medicine. It will enhance the educational experience while preparing aspiring physicians for careers that combine scholarly inquiry with clinical care. It also will increase the number of graduates who focus their scholarship and clinical practice on improving health care delivery in underserved areas.

"The University of Chicago has always been known as a teacher of teachers and this description has always been particularly apt for our medical school," said James L. Madara, MD, Dean of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and Chief Executive Officer of the University of Chicago Medical Center. "Our goal is to train physicians who will change medicine by bringing new knowledge to the field and passing it on."

In response to this renewed emphasis on mentorship and a very personalized approach to education, the school will reduce its average class size from 104 new students each year to 88 by the fall of 2009. This will enable the medical school to increase student-faculty interactions, to devote additional educational resources and financial support to each student and to restore some of the personal bonds in modern medical education that are often lost because of pressures on faculty time.

The decision to reduce class size runs counter to national trends. Predicting a physician shortage, the Association of American Medical Colleges and others have urged medical schools to train 30 percent more physicians by 2015.

Several experts, however, have questioned the benefit of training more physicians overall. Physician supply in the US is already at an all-time high, having risen from 200 doctors per 100,000 people in 1980 to a predicted 293 per 100,000 in 2010. Many argue that the problem is not one of physician supply, but rather one of maldistribution of physicians in the U.S.

For Pritzker, the move is a return to the school's historical roots. Fifty years ago, the University of Chicago enrolled approximately 55 to 60 new medical students each year. In the 1960s and 70s, a series of federal incentives put considerable pressure on all medical schools to increase enrollment. The University of Chicago gradually raised its class size to 104. By the fall of 2009, that will be scaled back to 88 new students each year.

Pritzker will also require every medical student to complete a significant project as part of a new emphasis on scholarship and discovery under the close supervision of a faculty mentor. About 70 percent of current students already undertake such a project. That will increase to 100 percent with the 2009 incoming class. Students will begin work on their scholarly projects during the summer between the first and second years.

Some curriculum changes will already be in place this summer. Instead of starting classes in late September as in the past, first-year medical students entering in 2008 will arrive August 1 and immediately be immersed in a redesigned anatomy class, The Human Body, that combines traditional instruction and dissection with added clinical insights from surgeons as well as experts on medical imaging. All incoming students will also participate in an expanded experience devoted to understanding health care disparities in the United States.

"The best medical education ensures richness in the shared activities and supervision of students by faculty," Humphrey said. "It is in the context of working side by side with our faculty, in shared situations in the classroom, laboratory, and clinical setting, that our students turn information into knowledge and wisdom. Our goal is to provide the opportunities our students need to become both excellent physicians and leading scholars in a range of initiatives related to medicine. This is the best possible preparation for the challenges of 21st-century health care," she said.

The Pritzker School of Medicine, ranked 16th among medical schools in 2008 by U.S.News and World Report, has risen faster than any other top-50 medical school in the country over the last five years. It is fourth in the country--behind only Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale--for the percentage of graduates who go on to careers in academic medicine. Nearly 24 percent of all Pritzker graduates from 1989 to 1998 are now on the faculty at an academic medical center, nearly twice the national average.

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John Easton
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