By April Terreri
When the founders of Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) in Erie decided to open a new medical college in 1992, the medical community shook their heads. After all, hadn’t they read the Pew Foundation’s report stating there already were too many physicians, nurses, and pharmacists in the country?
Well, it turns out LECOM was right and Pew was not. In fact, Millcreek Community Hospital and other hospitals in the region were having a lot of difficulty recruiting physicians and other medical professionals they required, reports Silvia Ferretti, D.O., Provost, Senior Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs of LECOM. “We existed in an area underserved by physicians between Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Erie having its own school meant we could help with the supply-and-demand problems in the region.”
LECOM established its niche by delivering student-centered medical education in multiple learning formats designed to appeal to the different adult learning styles. “Our students have the choice of four pathways, depending on how they excel in learning,” explains Dr. Ferretti. Three of the pathways are traditional, four-year programs and include a system-based lecture/discussion curriculum; small-group, problem-based learning; and an individually-directed, independent study pathway.
The fourth pathway – the Primary Care Scholars Pathway – is an accelerated, year-round three-year program that LECOM began this academic year. “This pathway has generated a lot of interest,” notes Hershey Bell, M.D., Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Evaluation. To gauge student interest, the College accepted six students into this program in October. Dr. Bell reports interest peaked beyond expectations, with 30 students expressing interest for the eight available spots in next year’s program. The program will be able to enroll 12 new students in its fourth year of operation. “After that, if the pathway is as successful as we think it will be, we will open the program to accept whatever number seems appropriate.”
Dr. Ferretti notes that one of the primary appeals of osteopathic medicine is its focus on the patient first, then the disease. “The student going into osteopathic medicine is philosophically driven to include osteopathic manipulative treatment as well as treating the mind, body, and spirit of the individual patient. Over the past 15 years, we have seen more of a focus on prevention, which has always been key to osteopathic medicine. Now we are seeing this philosophy becoming more commonplace.”
Because LECOM is a private institution of learning, the College maintains affordable tuition. “We have one of the most affordable tuitions – about $25,500 per year – in the country for a private medical school,” states Dr. Ferretti. “Affordability is very important because the indebtedness of a medical student can be in the realm of $160,000, which could drive students from practicing in primary care, for which there is a huge need in the country.”
Dr. Bell notes all U.S. medical schools face a big challenge in proving to the public that high-quality medical care is a primary concern for medical educators. “About a decade ago, a report stated that hospitals and physicians were a major source of error leading to patient death. As a result, the entire medical profession is being held more accountable to produce only quality physicians. Here at LECOM we have responded to that challenge by incorporating competencies into our curriculum that specifically focuses on high quality care and high-quality outcomes. We want to ensure we produce students who will go out there to practice medicine above and beyond the standards. We are fortunate in that we have the ability to offer these multiple learning pathways and flex our curriculum to respond quickly to these new trends and requirements in the profession.”
Dr. Bell notes the current generation of students entering higher learning has never known a time when there were no computers and therefore they have expectations in terms of what a school will deliver within a curriculum. “They expect technology, innovation, and multiple platforms of delivery,” he reports. “One example is how we are responding to these expectations through our distance education product that allows us to offer online chat rooms, discussion forums, and pod casts. If a medical school can’t offer these things, it is perceived as anachronistic.”
LECOM is also developing a distance education, core curriculum for its third- and fourth-year students on clinical rotations throughout the country. “This assures that every student can access the same curriculum, dialog with the same professors, and see the same lectures through pod casts,” explains Dr. Bell. “This to me is one of the great challenges in medical education and a challenge we can meet because we were able to create a strategic plan that suggested we needed to think about these things. So, now we are fortunate to be at the forefront of this kind of educational delivery.”
Dr. Bell adds that it is important that physicians live up to their oath to promise to teach the next generation of physicians. “The truth is that not every physician has the skills to do that effectively. But through our master’s degree program, we designed a program to help physicians become better teachers so they can become educational leaders in their medical settings and in their communities. Here at LECOM we strive to be leaders in teaching physicians how to be educators. Although we’ve been around for only 16 years, we are already looked to by the profession for leadership.”