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New Med School Delivers a New Breed of Physicians

Florida International University is opening the first new medical school in a major metropolitan area in a quarter-century. It will be the first public medical school in South Florida. Although the new school won't hold its first classes until next year, it has already attracted a lot of attention. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, college administrators expect their innovative model of medical education will produce physicians who can change the way healthcare is delivered, especially in America's poorest communities.

The new medical college in Miami is the answer to the needs of the local community, according to Dr. Jose Joe Greer, FIU College of Medicine's Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs. Not only will it help ease the shortage of physicians in south Florida, he predicts it will graduate better prepared doctors.

"We've seen where we have failed as a profession," Dr. Greer says. "We've gone to see what we can do to make better physicians."

Students will study a wide range of subjects not part of the typical medical school curriculum, beginning in their first year with a course on the ethical, the theological, and the philosophical foundations of medicine,

"They will be taught intensively on cultural competencies, including everything — not just the culture of race and ethnicity, but gender, age, socio-economics," Greer says.

The alternative approach continues off-campus, as well. Greer explains that students will be assigned to visit and care for families in an at-risk neighborhood throughout their education. They will also learn how to collaborate with others in serving their local communities.

"They will form teams that consist of medical students, students from other colleges such as nursing, public health, (and) social work education," he says. "They will be working with the law school also. They will end up going into communities and be responsible for specific households, as [in] the old days when doctors used to make house calls."

Dr. Cheryl Holder is Medical Director of the North Dade Health Center, one of the local clinics and hospitals that will provide training for FIU medical students. "We see this as an exciting opportunity for students to really learn about the patient, not see the patient as just a disease," she says.

Holder says this program, called NeighborhoodHELP, will develop physicians who bring a new perspective to their practice.

"Take the common epidemic that I think everybody is talking about, obesity. In the old model, the patient would come to the doctor, [the doctor would say,] 'Oh you're obese, take some pills, or maybe go see a dietitian and lose the weight.'"

Doctors who have spent time in the community, she says, will take a different approach to the same problem, because they'll understand the obstacles the residents face to eating healthy and getting regular exercise.

"Many of my community can't exercise because they may get shot if they go out," Holder says, "or they don't have sidewalks to walk on." She says some residents also "can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables, because in poor neighborhoods those are not available."

Holder predicts the young doctors who spend time in the community will come up with more comprehensive prescriptions for treating the patients' — and community's — needs.

"They're going to say, 'How can we get fresh fruits and vegetables into this community?" she says. "'How can we get access to real inexpensive exercise options?'"

The program, Holder says, will make the physician "more of an advocate, a real leader for the community."

Holder says she is enthusiastic and excited to be associated with the first medical school in the United States to use this educational approach. She and FIU's Joe Greer hope the program will succeed in creating a new breed of physician that will go beyond the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm" — and will strive to make a true difference in their patients' lives.