As any doctor will attest, medical school involves a huge commitment of time and money. So Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts is offering a taste of med school for those considering the big career leap, and for others just seeking a bit of modern medical knowledge.
Dr. Richard Brown is giving a lecture on infectious diseases to sixty attentive students in white lab coats. The topic is antibiotics.
"How many people here within the course of a year have taken an antibiotic? Looks like maybe one in five, 20 percent of you," he says. "What I'm going to do over the next few minutes is give you an idea what the impact of that microbial use might be."
This could easily pass as a first year course at any U.S. medical school - except the student body ranges in age from 17 to 80, and most have other careers. This is Baystate Medical Center's Mini-Med School. For a modest fee, students attend 8 weeks of evening lectures by experts on cardiac surgery, cancer treatment, pain management, and other emerging topics. This model began 10 years ago in Colorado and has spread to medical schools around the country.
"We're not trying to make doctors out of the public," says Paul Friedman, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Baystate, which is a teaching hospital for Tufts medical school. "We just want to expose them to relatively new concepts in medicine, and also expose them to the feeling of what a medical student goes through when they go to medical school."
That's why Dr. Brown spares no graphic detail as he shows slides of pus-filled wounds and makes his case against the overuse of antibiotics.
"Normally what happens, a 30 to 40-year-old patient comes into doctor's office because he or she has been coughing for a few days and she comes up to the doctor and goes 'Ugh, look what I'm coughing up here! Look at this.' It's green, it's yellow, terrible looking. That means to the patient, I'm infected," he says. "In fact, as I'll show you, 95 to 98 percent of the time, when a patient develops bronchitis, it's a virus. And what's the best antibiotic for a virus? None. Exactly right."
When Baystate first offered this course last spring, there was so much interest that 170 applicants had to be turned away. The turnout this fall was just as great. Charlie Spallino, 80, a small business owner, signed up to better understand his own medical care.
"This will give you an insight to what a doctor is going through when you go there as a patient," he says, "for example, he says I'm gonna prescribe, and you say, why is he prescribing that?"
Joan Serbiel, who's facing menopause, wants to make better health care choices.
"Like hormone replacement therapy, the estrogen can in some people cause cancer...everything's a trade off, and sometimes when you go to the doctor, they ask, what do you want to do? and you have to make a decision, so you might as well know everything you can know," she says.
Ann Frederick, 60, is looking for practical information she can use at home.
"I figure, one of my kids, husband, grandchildren - if they have like a symptom of something, maybe I'll know what it is," she says. "And if I really like this course, I'd go back to school and become a hospice nurse, because I always wanted to do that."
Karen Erkis is a 49-year-old nurse considering a career change.
"I really do wish I went to medical school…I do know someone who became an MD, a psychiatrist, at 52…it's never too late," she says.
To get the full picture, students tour parts of the hospital that are usually off-limits to the public, including the pathology lab. As vials of blood move through a massive machine, pathologist Glenn Suprenant explains the state of the art system used to analyze the samples.
For the more people-oriented, there's a tour of the Childbirth Center. Nurse Eileen Jardina points out a room where nurses are practicing neo-natal CPR.
"You're likely to see a dummy being resuscitated...and if you go by and you don't know it's a fake baby, people sort of do a double-take," she says.
At the end of every class, students turn in their white coats. But hospital officials say they won't be surprised if a few Mini-Med School graduates decide to earn one for real at a full-fledged medical school.
Baystate plans to offer a special session next year to high school seniors who are considering a career in medicine.