Heritage College prepares to roll out major curriculum makeover

Jul 9, 2018

Executive Dean and OHIO Chief Medical Affairs Officer Ken Johnson, D.O., talks about the new curriculum during a public forum.

When the newest cohort of medical students begins classes at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine in August, they will be on the front line of a bold advance for the college, as it rolls out a new medical school curriculum designed to train physicians for the rapidly changing world of modern health care.

“At the Heritage College, we aim to lead the way in transforming how primary care physicians are trained, and this new curriculum is a flagship project in that regard,” said Heritage College Executive Dean and OHIO Chief Medical Affairs Officer Ken Johnson, D.O. “It incorporates what we know from research about how people learn most effectively, and aligns our teaching with the collaborative, patient-centered approach that physicians need to deliver quality health care in the 21 st century.”

While the existing curriculum imparted the skills and knowledge needed to become a highly capable osteopathic physician, Heritage College leaders saw an opportunity to convey that training in a way more aligned with today’s evolving best practices in care delivery, to improve the care provided to patients and communities, and to formalize the college’s commitment to the personal wellness of its students during medical school and beyond.

The Heritage College’s Pathways to Health and Wellness Curriculum will cover traditional medical school material in an innovative way that takes into account the latest thinking on best education practice; mirrors the holistic, patient-centered approach that trademarks osteopathic medicine; instills in students the team-based outlook that’s reshaping modern health care; and values the healer’s wellness along with the patient’s. It will also maintain and enhance what has long been a signature strength of Heritage College training – early and frequent experience with patients in clinical settings.

The PHWC will integrate the clinical, biomedical and social science aspects of medicine into an all-encompassing, long-arc approach that follows patients, over the course of the two years, through the stages of wellness, acute illness, chronic illness and return to wellness. Each semester, students will grapple with 10 to 15 patient cases, drawing on the expertise of faculty in different areas of medicine and medical-related science.

Most training will take place in active, collaborative learning sessions, where students will work together and with faculty to problem-solve and understand each case in all its human and scientific complexity. Instead of a teaching approach that’s heavily reliant on lectures, students will take more control over preparing for the active learning sessions through self-directed independent study, taking advantage of recorded lectures and modules they can access on their own schedules. Faculty, too, will enjoy more control over course content and how they teach it.

“Material in the new curriculum is organized by patient presentations, and the content is integrated,” explained Associate Dean, Curriculum Jody Gerome, D.O. (’05), who with her faculty colleague Peter Coschigano, Ph.D., served as a co-director of the PHWC. “The end result will be that students will learn the material in the context in which they will use the material, as opposed to isolated silos.”

Instead of building up over weeks to a few high-stakes, high-pressure exams that can make or break a course grade, students will undergo more frequent, lower-stakes testing. This will provide them with ongoing feedback on how well they’re mastering the material and allow them to promptly address areas where they may be struggling. It will also offer an effective preparation for taking the boards.

The osteopathic ethos puts a high value on personal wellness for the physician as well as patients, and the PHWC puts that principle into action. Both students and faculty will have protected wellness time – a guaranteed time-out from academics for nurturing their own well-being of body, mind and spirit. Each student will also pursue ongoing professional development with the aid of an assigned faculty mentor, who will offer counsel and support as students build a portfolio  in which they set goals, monitor progress and reflect on their clinical experiences.

When they emerge from the PHWC, new Heritage College D.O.s will be prepared to function efficiently in – and lead – caregiver teams. They will also be trained in important new areas needed by today’s health care professionals, such as interprofessional interaction and health systems science – essentially the study of how health care systems work.

“One of the guiding principles of PHWC is the integrated multidisciplinary approach to learning activities,” Coschigano explained. “Health systems science involves basic, clinical and social sciences and is ideally suited for the PHWC integrated curriculum.  Similarly, interprofessional teamwork is integrated and specific activities are being designed for delivery.”

Though current Heritage College students will continue their education with the existing curriculum, their input was sought in creating the new one. Two students who sat on the PHWC steering committee said that while some aspects of the new curriculum, such as the need for more self-direction in pre-class preparation, may pose an initial challenge to incoming students, they expect this approach will help student doctors master course material in a more integrated way and smooth their transition into third and fourth years.

Amber McDermott, OMS IV, predicted that the more holistic approach “is going to be one of the more positive things about the new curriculum,” as will the centering of the curriculum around the concept of wellness. “I’m looking at it from where I am,” she said. “When you get to this point, you realize how important it is to understand ‘normal.’ And I think that focusing on that wellness first, and what normal is for all of the body systems, will help them a lot when they go to learn acute and chronic illness.” 

Sunny Sharma, OMS III, said the “flipped classroom” concept featured in the new curriculum – in which foundational material is made available for absorption outside the classroom, and activities once treated as homework are moved into the classroom – has been shown to help students better master and retain what they’re taught.

“Although it veers from the traditional classroom setting, several of us students are excited to see how the curriculum will play out,” she said – adding that she would definitely advise incoming students in the PHWC to “stay caught up on the material presented in the independent reading and video series in order to ensure that their knowledge base is solidified when tackling cases.”

To help prepare faculty to thrive in the new curriculum, numerous types of development activities have been provided, and many faculty have participated in pilot projects over the last two years.  A teaching excellence team has been created and will work to assist in developing course material and delivery.

Curricular transformation was one of the goals attached to the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation’s historic $105 million Vision 2020 award in 2011, and the college has been working steadily toward this makeover of its curriculum since 2014. It fits into a wider transformation of U.S. medical education, which includes the pending unification of the osteopathic and allopathic college accreditation processes into a single accreditation system under the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

Hear Dr. Johnson and Dr. Gerome discuss the new curriculum with WOUB Public Media host Tom Hodson on this Spectrum podcast recorded June 15.