Kindness Beyond Curriculum

By Robert Folberg, MD

It was the last event of my intensive two-day interview for the position of founding dean of the new Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine (OUWB) in Southeast Michigan. The questions at dinner about curriculum, finances, facilities, faculty, and the future of health care delivery were interrupted by a health system leader who asked quietly, “Bob, I know you can train a medical student to be academically brilliant and technically masterful. We want to know how you train a physician to be kind.”

Six years later, in July 2014 as we prepared to enroll our fourth class, the Detroit News wrote about us and our “kindness curriculum.” What had happened since that dinner?

We designed OUWB around the hypothesis that kindness must be experienced and practiced. In the Detroit News article, one of our students observed, “Not only are they showing me how to be a kind and compassionate doctor, but they show me all the time how much they care about me as a person… They model the behavior that they want from us.”

OUWB was an early adopter of holistic admissions, with an emphasis on selecting students with experiences and attributes that would predict academic success and compassionate behavior. We immerse these gifted students in a learning environment that resembles a small, high-achieving, liberal arts college.

We promote the student’s own well-being through a course that emphasizes personal growth through reflective practice (PRISM). This course spans the four-year curriculum. It is interesting that the members of our charter class of 2015 inserted the following language into the oath that they will take at graduation: “I will care for myself so that I am able to care for others.”

Our students begin learning communication skills within the first weeks of medical school in a transdisciplinary setting from our colleagues in Oakland’s School of Education and Human Services. At the same time, we begin teaching clinical skills that are coordinated with our rigorous basic science curriculum, and we administer an Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) at the end of the first semester of the M1 year.

Our students are expected to come to class. One of our current M1 students related that he couldn’t imagine going to a medical school that streams its curriculum; how else would he learn from his classmates? The OUWB student body is exceptionally diverse and by learning from each other, they experience diversity in ways that would not be possible if they were learning online. OUWB students refer to their school as their “community” and even their “family.” We are a community serving our community.

Our medical students reported a 95 percent satisfaction level with the OUWB learning environment in the independent student survey prepared for the LCME full accreditation survey.

Although students learn together, they also engage in a four-year, highly structured, mentored and individualized self-directed learning exercise that we call Capstone. One student who eventually obtained a small extramural grant to support her bench research commented that she never thought she was capable of research. Another student ventured outside of her capstone project and became the first medical student to reach the finalist round of a medical Google Glass competition: She started her own company last summer.

Does this all translate into productive outcomes?

Beaumont physicians who taught students from legacy medical schools for decades have noticed the difference. Patients report back to them repeatedly about exceptional experiences with OUWB students.

OUWB students have assumed national leadership roles. OUWB’s AMWA (American Medical Women’s Association) student group was national branch of the year for two consecutive years; the current national president and secretary–treasurer are OUWB students. OUWB students have assumed chair roles in AMSA groups. Perhaps our experiences help to validate the conclusion reached by our colleague Dr. Chip Souba, former Dean of the Geisel School of Medicine: Leadership begins by learning to lead oneself.

As a new medical school, we recruited leadership, faculty, and staff members who bought into and advocated for our vision. In our first years of offering instruction, our students observed that OUWB was different from medical schools that their friends attended. At times, they (and even we) wondered if we knew what we were doing. We were tempted on more than one occasion to “go off mission,” but we made the commitment—we and our students—to stay the course.

Now that we have enrolled four classes, the OUWB culture is even stronger than we could have imagined when we designed the school six years ago.

One member of our charter class summarized it elegantly. She suggested that within a decade or perhaps a generation, one will be able to point to a physician and say, “By the way you practice medicine, you must have trained at OUWB.”

folberg_robert_2012_smallerRobert Folberg, MD, is Founding Dean, Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine, and Chief Academic Officer, William Beaumont Hospital. He can be reached at rfolberg@oakland.edu.

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