Lessons Learned During 10 Years of Mini-Medical School

Building relationships with our community at the University of Washington

By Larry Robinson, MD, University of Washington School of Medicine

We started our Mini-Medical School program at the University of Washington in 2001, following the model initiated by the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine) in 1992.  We thought of it initially as a great fundraising tool. In the past 10 years, however, we’ve recognized it’s primarily a community engagement event that now attracts more than 800 registrants annually.

Our audience is very diverse:  potential medical students, healthcare professionals who come for updates on the latest medical advances, and laypeople of all ages who are interested in the latest methods of care. It’s critical that we grasp everyone’s interest and intellect, and are careful not to talk down to them. We strive to provide a challenging and educational program that showcases both the cutting edge of medicine and the human side of healthcare at the University of Washington. We know that 40 percent of our audience members are repeat attendees, so we don’t repurpose old material. Tuition is free, in order to attract the greatest possible diversity, and we don’t turn anyone away. This year, we installed large screens in the building lobby to handle overflow.

We believe that UW was the first to televise Mini-Med: Our six, two-hour sessions are edited into twelve hour-long broadcasts. These are shown first on UW’s TV station, which is available on local cable, then syndicated. This not only broadens our audience but effectively markets the next year’s session.

We select two faculty members to serve as co-hosts of Mini-Med; they serve for three years. Their connection to the audience is a huge part of our success. They serve as masters of ceremonies, introducing each session and putting our topics into context, so engaging personalities are essential.

Speakers are selected because they are excellent teachers and have superb content knowledge. Being asked to speak at Mini-Med is regarded as an honor at UW. We have found that the more interactive the session, the better. Whether it’s learning to tie a surgical knot or participating in a simulation, interactive experiences truly draw in audience members. We can do this as simply as using an audience response system that allows attendees to vote or answer questions. Gross anatomy labs are highly popular, but those are limited to 60 participants who are selected by lottery.

Ongoing evaluation and refinement are crucial. Attendees complete evaluations and are solicited for suggestions; we try to be responsive to their comments. At the end of each six-week session, we hold a graduation party for attendees, complete with cake and certificates. One attendee’s insistence on cake and frosting without high-fructose corn syrup (which was blamed for obesity, diabetes, and chronic renal failure in one talk) let us know they’re listening!

Mini-Medical School is primarily a tool for community engagement. Certainly, we also hope that attendees are more likely to use and recommend UW Medicine doctors and hospitals. How do we know whether we’re successful? The increasing number of attendees each year is probably the best measure. Their enthusiasm for and interest in what we do is palpable.

It requires a significant investment of money, time, and other resources, but the Mini-Medical School is like a Christmas tree: It’s our gift to the community, and it just keeps getting better and better.

To find out more information or watch more Mini-Med School sessions, click here.

Larry Robinson, MD, is vice dean of clinical affairs and graduate medical education at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He has chaired UW’s Mini-Medical School program since 2006. He can be reached at lorenzo@uw.edu.

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