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Patients as teachers: U-M Medical School seeks patients to help educate medical students

Patients as teachers: U-M Medical School seeks patients to help educate medical students

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The University of Michigan Medical School is looking for a few more teachers for the upcoming school year -- but they don’t need to have a medical or scientific degree. They don’t need to be experienced professors. And they don’t even need to be adults.

Instead, the dozens of teachers U-M seeks must have a different kind of experience: living with a serious or chronic illness. And just like any teacher, they must be willing to share the knowledge that comes from that experience with their students, to help them prepare for their future careers.

The patients form the centerpiece of the Family Centered Experience, a unique course that all U-M’s first- and second-year medical students have taken since 2003.

U-M is one of the few medical schools in the nation with such an intensive course involving students and patients exploring the “human side” of medicine.

For patients, the teaching position doesn’t come with a paycheck. But it does come with the satisfaction of helping U-M medical students see a patient as a whole person, and help them better understand how illness affects daily life.

To be eligible, volunteers must have a chronic medical condition that significantly impacts their lives on a daily basis and requires them to make regular doctor visits. This can include ill children and teens, whose parents consent to take part. They must also live within 30 miles of Ann Arbor.

Each volunteer -- and his or her immediate family or other supporting individuals -- commits to mentor the same pair of students for at least two years, and share stories about their illness and their life during visits to their home.

The mentoring and sharing takes place in six separate two-hour interactions – including five home visits and one doctor’s appointment. Each visit has a theme, to help guide the discussion, and students must complete assignments and class discussions based on what they learn.

“We really find that this program helps our students develop communication and listening skills that they will use in practicing medicine, and deepens their compassion and understanding,” says Arno Kumagai, M.D., professor of internal medicine and medical education and director of the program.

The program has evolved over the last nine years, as generations of students and families give feedback on how to make the most of the experience. Some patients and families have volunteered for three “generations” of students, and nearly all patients express satisfaction with the program.

Heather Wagenshutz, who coordinates the Family Centered Experience program for the Medical School’s Office of Student Programs, notes that the experience of delving deeper into the non-clinical aspects of disease and the patient experience helps aspiring doctors learn the “Platinum Rule” – to treat people as they themselves want to be treated.

“The students are there to challenge themselves, and to become comfortable with listening, learning and not knowing the answers,” she says. “Through this, they try to realize what it means to be a patient – which stays with them as they become a physician.”

While the students don’t get directly involved in the patient’s care, view their medical records or give medical advice, they do discuss the details of the patient’s condition – and its impact on them and their loved ones – in depth.

Confidentiality is assured, as medical students are subject to the same privacy laws as all other health care workers. Patients and students work to schedule in-home sessions at a time that is convenient for the patient, and pick an already-scheduled doctor’s appointment for the students to observe.

The application process begins with a phone interview – and by this August, when the new first-year (M1) students arrive, each patient and family will be matched up with their pair of students.

For more information, visit , and  to indicate an interest in applying for the program.


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