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Med students get eye-opening crash course [The Journal]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Journal
Nov. 9, 1997

Sixteen-year-old Laura Bruno may not have understood everything the lecturer explained, but she did get an experience most never will have in a lifetime. She held a human heart.

Bruno was among an unusual group of 150 “medical students” who never plan to put the initials M.D. after their names. They just want to know how to best communicate with one.

“On the first night we got to see the anatomy lab,” she says of Georgetown University’s new mini-medical school—a part public relations effort / part public education program designed to improve patient-physician relations.

Adapted from similar programs offered at medical schools across the country, this one is an eight-week abbreviated medical school curriculum. Participants get crash courses in anatomy, pharmacology, immunology, physiology, rheumatology, endocrinology, and ethics. All are taught by doctors and professors affiliated with Georgetown Medical School.

“It was awesome to see the dead bodies,” said Bruno, an Arlington, Va., student who is one of the youngest participants in the program. “I can hardly wait to tell my friends at school.”

The public is in the dark about many aspects of medicine, said the creators of the program, Dr. Avaid Haramati of Silver Spring, Md., and Dr. Herbert Herscowitz, of Potomac, Md. So, they carefully chose their topics and injected a bit of humor into their presentations. Topics ranged from anatomy, “The Inside Story,” to a lecture on endocrinology called “Osteoporosis: Honey, I Shrunk the Grown-ups.”

Just like real med school, students in this program get to meet people suffering from a variety of ailments. During one session, Mimsy Lindner, 37, talked to the class about her rheumatoid arthritis.

“I think my case was of interest to the students in the class because I am young and active and I don’t look like I have a chronic disease,” says Lindner, a mother of four who was diagnosed with arthritis six weeks after her second child was born.

For Dr. Stephen Mitchell, who presented the lecture on rheumatology, it was an excuse to explain a progressive, disabling and debilitating condition. He explained to the class: “Millions of Americans have inflammatory arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness in the joints or other areas of their bodies. For many, it can progressively lead to the inability to perform basic functions of life. This is something that, will take normally functioning adults and make them dysfunctional. I don’t like this disease.”

It is that kind of information that inspired Tyson’s Comer resident Jan Charles Opper, 49, to enroll in the program.

“I have always had a deep interest in medicine, but I never had any real intention of going to medical school,” says Opper, who manages grants programs for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “This lecture series is a great way to learn about the field.”

Patricia Hayer of Chevy Chase, Md., signed up for practical reasons. The 76-year-old former meteorologist for the Air Force says: “As time goes by and you get older, you get more aches and pains, and eventually you end up seeing more and more doctors. I thought ff I take this course, maybe I’ll be able to talk back to them.”

Other students said they are more interested in career advancement.

Cheryl Follar, 25, of Rockville, Md., enrolled because she wants to be a medical reporter and thought the program would be a good resource for information. “I like this course because the doctors simplify the information just enough so I can understand how the body works. There are times when the information goes over my head, but most of the time I catch the meaning.”


Empowering the public and turning them on to the thrill of science inspired Haramati and Herscowitz to start the program.

“These people are here to learn about how their bodies work,” says Herscowitz, a professor of Microbiology and Immunology. “In this regard, it makes them better patients, for now they can go to the doctor and ask intelligent questions.”

Herscowitz is also aware that the program is good PR for the school. “This is our way of showing that we are here, we are friendly, and we have something that might interest you.”

Another benefit, Haramati notes, is that the program introduces the public to the life of a doctor-in-training. “We are giving anyone interested the opportunity to catch a glimpse of what medical school is really like.”

And just like real medical school, the class spent its first session examining cadavers.

“We were nervous about this lesson,” Herscowitz admits. “We knew it could gross out some people to see a dead body and wondered if a tour of the computer lab might be more appropriate. But as it turned out, we couldn’t get the people out of the anatomy lab. They were fascinated.”


Dr. John Cohen knew that would be the reaction. He started the first mini-medical school program at the University of Colorado in 1990.

In 1992 Bruce Fuchs took the concept to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. It attracted so much attention that he soon became considered the marketing guru of the concept and went on the national speaker’s circuit to tout the idea. National Institutes of Health caught his show, and asked him to be acting director of the Office of Science Education, which creates and oversees programs to improve science literacy. To date, he has set up about two-dozen mini-medical schools around the country.

Fuchs said these programs are important because the public is yearning for information on science and health.

“Apparently we scientists have not been doing a good enough job of providing a forum to talk about our work. But [the public] are the people who pay for what we do, so we really owe them.”

According to Fuchs, psychological studies have shown that taking a more active role in the health care process helps patients feel like they have control over their lives.
NIH sponsors its own program at the Lipsett Amphitheater of the Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md., and jointly sponsors programs with the Smithsonian Institutions, the Metropolitan Baptist Church and the YMCA in Baltimore.

Fuchs said his long-term goal is to see these programs in every medical school or large research university in the country. “I’d like the new generations of recent grads and young scientists to feel a responsibility for public education in and out of the school system.”

And, Fuchs said, the goal is personal.

“I’m from the cornfields in Springfield, and the entire time I was a kid I’d tell people I wanted to grow up to be a scientist,” he said. “But, I never met a professional scientist until I was a senior in high school. I’d like to make science more accessible to kids and adults everywhere, especially in remote rural areas.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

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• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.