Doctor, Teach me to be a Doctor

Med school is changing, but two centuries of Emory School of Medicine physician education shares enduring lessons.

By Michelle Valigursky

In every global culture, at virtually every point in history, humanity has relied on its educated and trained physicians to diagnose, treat, heal, and nurture. In fact, some might argue that the health of our species depends on responsible – and consistent – medical care. Dr. Henry Jennings 41Ox 43C 45M 46MR 51MR and future pediatrician Diogo Anyigbo 10C 14M compare notes about their medical school educational process, from last century to the new Millennium.

As medical education developed through the years since its inception, Emory School of Medicine expanded its facilities and offerings to broaden its comprehensive preparation of physicians. Today, the fully-accredited medical school has 564 medical students, 518 allied health students, 1188 residents and fellows, and 2328 full- and part-time faculty.

Newly appointed Emory School of Medicine Dean Christian Larsen 80C 84M 91R, an internationally recognized leader in transplant surgery and immunology, reflects on growth within the medical field. “Medicine is changing to a more team, collaborative model, with individual responsibility and accountability at the same time.” Medical school curriculum is reflective of this approach.

Countless scientific advances have occurred in the seventy-year spread between their classes at Emory School of Medicine, but Jennings and Anyigbo unite in a fundamental wisdom and appreciation for the School of Medicine’s team approach to learning. Both entered medical school at age 21, and both believe in the training Emory mentors and instructors readily provide. Jennings’ significant contributions to the scope of clinical practice will continue to inspire and endure, while Anyigbo is ready to embark on a quest to make her own mark in pediatric medicine and health policy for children. EmoryWire talked with Jennings and Anyigbo about the education of physicians.   

EmoryWire: In addition to mastering a precise scientific curriculum, what principles must medical students understand?

Dr. Henry Jennings:  Many doctors today miss the “people” part of the medical experience. Too often, a patient comes in with symptoms and an expensive medical test is ordered right away. Not often enough are doctors taking time to interact closely with patients and nurses. The principles still relevant today? Conduct a thorough exam, top to bottom, and pay very close attention to patient history. Touch as a diagnostic tool. Make personal contact. Doctors may have more restrictions now, but personal interaction can’t be undervalued.

Diogo Anyigbo: Be attentive by listening and observing what a patient is doing. Understand where a patient is coming from, and ask questions about their lifestyle, education, and struggles. Understand them as a person first, rather than just as a condition. And always make time to enjoy the little victories with your patients.

EW: During your student days, Dr. Jennings, two medical students might examine a cadaver for nine months to master anatomy. Today, a small group of six or seven may share this hands-on experience. Is working with cadavers important to a physician’s education?

HJ: A med student’s first year is dominated by gross anatomy, and there is no better teacher than learning about the human body from the inside. To actually look at, pick up, and feel parts of the human body like muscles and lungs, you gain understanding. There is no substitute.

DA: Learning modules are paired with specific dissections and team members divide tasks to share in learning. We learn from each other as well as the cadaver, and we’re able to observe different individual techniques and approaches to the same procedure.

EW: What did your clinical rotations teach you?

HJ: For our rotations, we worked at Grady Hospital in medicine, surgery, and pediatrics, with eventual work (as seniors) in an OB/GYN unit. We took histories, did exams, and learned how to actually be doctors.

DA: When we work “The Wards” at Grady, we do rotations in surgery, pediatrics, and neurology. Later, we experience ambulatory (outpatient) medicine and subspecialties, as well as psychiatry and OB/GYN. We learn how to counsel patients and understand the social determinants of their good health. Working in The Emory Clinic or in any number of community medical clinics, we work under close supervision with doctors to practice taking histories and improve examination skills.

EW: Curriculum may have become more refined since the earliest days of Emory’s School of Medicine, but student-faculty interaction remains at the core of the med school experience. Can you explain your faculty interaction?

HJ: Our faculty members were very close to us and invited us into conversation. Their student load was lighter than today, but they were very open and communicative. We could ask questions, and we often attended conferences and special topic seminars alongside our teachers.

DA: The medical school has a fantastic strategy. We are now assigned as first-year students to small groups led by a faculty mentor. This small group leader is a physician who regularly meets with us to guide us through the process of becoming a practicing doctor. We have unlimited access, really. Our physicians on campus regularly interact with students outside of class. Through Outpatient Experience (OPEX) Preceptor Program, different medical specialties are accessible to students, and the expert doctors involved become approachable and real. Our instructors will say “if you’re interested in XYZ, let me know and I’ll schedule time for you to join me during a procedure.” It’s an incredible learning opportunity. 

EW: What about competition amongst med students?

HJ: We didn’t have study groups, but in my day, we med students stuck together. Though some fellows may have flunked out, we helped each other along. Always.

DA: We stay connected by social media, sharing professional milestone experiences via Twitter or Facebook. Even though we are all very busy, we can still experience medical firsts together. What is different now than years ago is that in the first year and a half of medical school only pass/fail grades are assigned. By taking away the letter grades, people are less focused on seeing their name at the top of a list and possibly undermining classmates to get top honors. We’re all Type A personalities, but we’re absolutely in this together as a team.

EW: Finally, what piece of advice would you share with a medical student or young doctor?

HJ: One of my mentors, Dr. Stead, taught me an excellent lesson. Don’t just memorize. Instead, learn the best method of approach. Learn from your mentors. And if I may add to that, always establish contact with a patient in a very personal way.

DA: Remember that as a doctor you will be exposed to the most vulnerable aspects of a person’s life. You’ll deal with the beauty and the ugliness. Try to maintain your humanity and the humanity of others. Fight the “numbness” and take care of yourself. No one person is the same, and protocols are important, but the quintessential core of medicine lies in the variety of mind/body connections in individuals. Have the right intentions in pursuing medicine, and never forget to truly interact with the patient.

Editor’s Note: Read more about Jennings’ and Anyigbo’s “Journey to Serve Patients” on The Post alumni blog. Learn more about Emory’s Body Donor Program and Emory School of Medicine.

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Michelle Valigursky