Paths allow medical students to pursue what ‘makes their heart beat’

March 1, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,

When Megan Lane started medical school in 2014, she was excited to begin her journey toward becoming a doctor. She was also anxious to delve into the research arena.

The first part of her quest was easy to map out, as U-M excels at preparing future physicians for the road ahead.

How to fulfill her second aspiration became clear when she signed up for one of the medical school’s most popular student offerings. Lane joined the Paths of Excellence (PoE) program, in which students can explore one of the following areas: ethics, global health and disparities, health policy, innovation and entrepreneurship, medical humanities, patient safety, quality improvement and complex systems, scholarship of learning and teaching, and scientific discovery.

While not a formal part of the medical student curriculum, the PoE program gives students the opportunity to pursue interests and areas of passion. The program has grown rapidly, from approximately 75 students joining one of four paths in 2014-15 to more than 130 joining one of eight paths this year. Every path currently has at least 10 students participating.

After selecting a path, students connect with an advisor, engage in specialized experiences, develop knowledge through informational sessions, field trips and lectures, network with peers and professionals, and complete a capstone project.

“I decided to apply to the Ethics path of excellence as a way to join a community of students and faculty with similar interests,” Lane said. “I ended up getting interested in the ways we use and acquire bodies for anatomy lab after my own experience in the course. I also became interested in the history of anatomical acquisition.”

Lane’s capstone project is focused on issues of post-mortem decision-making and the ethical use of deceased individuals in educational and clinical settings. Her writing is published in Academic Medicine and AMA Journal of Ethics.

Now in her third year, Lane continues to research ethics and is exploring the possibility of pursuing another degree in this area.

“It isn’t just about doing a capstone project; it is about deeper-dive learning and about being part of a community and that connection (with other students),” said Heather Wagenshutz, co-director of the PoE program. “These are connections that can last a lifetime.”

Evan Martin chose Global Health and Disparities — the school’s most popular path — to pursue his passion for building healthy communities. He collaborated with Washtenaw County Public Health officials to identify the mental health needs of immigrants in the county. He co-authored a needs assessment and proposals for action for the county.

“This experience showed me the role that I could serve in illuminating health disparities and recommending policy reform to improve health,” Martin said. “My responsibility and potential to alleviate suffering and extend opportunity inspire me to be involved in health equity work throughout my career.”

Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Learning Health Sciences Eric P. Skye, M.D., the faculty lead on PoE, said he is impressed that students are committed to following a path, given stringent demands on their time.

“I am surprised, in the busy life of a student, that more than half of our students are finding the time to do something like this because they are excited by it,” he said.

First-year student Hanna Saltzman is just starting down her path in Medical Humanities. She said the PoE program is one of the reasons she chose U-M.

“A medical education is not complete with only knowledge of the basic sciences — medicine is so much more than that,” Saltzman said. “Even though the path will be additional time and work, it’ll provide an amazing opportunity to become connected with students and faculty who share my passions, who will expose me to new ways of thinking and who will enable me to learn more than I could on my own.”

Added Wagenshutz: “This is the stuff that makes their heart beat.”

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