Classroom Perspective

Learning medicine in context

One of Sapna Satyanarayan's initial lessons in medical education wasn't from a book, presentation or lecture. It wasn't even learned in the classroom. The first-year medical student spent part of her Block One project examining the socioeconomic and health concerns of one of Cleveland's urban neighborhoods.

Part of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine's Western Reserve2 curriculum, the Block One program is designed to give students a chance to explore how outside environmental factors influence people's health--to help them understand as students that knowledge of outside factors can inform them as doctors trying to diagnosis what's going on inside their patients.

In her project, Satyanarayan observed some eye-opening statistics--high rates of teen pregnancies and children born to single mothers, middle school students trying alcohol or marijuana and engaging in risky sexual behavior. But she also observed the residents' optimism and a desire to make their community a better place.

Getting to know people in the context of where they live is an essential part of the first year of medical school, says Scott Frank, MD, director of the university's master of public health program and a leader of the Block One program for medical students.

In the "community interaction" experience, students study data, talk with neighborhood leaders and meet residents. The analysis sometimes leads to special projects like Satyanarayan's. Other times, students brief Cleveland school officials on their findings.

"Understanding the neighborhoods their patients come from will improve the quality of care for the patients they will ultimately treat," Frank says.

Satyanarayan's experience as a student will help her as a doctor to understand the barriers people might have in accessing health care and what their priorities might be. "Those are things I now know to look out for," she says.