Hawai‘i’s physician shortage is a serious problem. It contributes to healthcare disparities, especially in our neighbor island communities. The increased demand on our physicians’ energies leads to burnout and withdrawal from clinical practice, making the problem worse.
In response, the University of Hawai‘i’s John A. Burns School of Medicine has increased class sizes to accommodate more trainees. Yet larger classes alone are not the answer. Our future doctors are already overwhelmed with the demands of their educations; adding students without adding critical support can lead to burnout, depression, and erosion of empathy.
"The solution to the shortage is not simply training more physicians," says Dr. Jerris Hedges, JABSOM Dean, and Barry and Virginia Weinman Endowed Chair. "We must train them differently, helping them to adopt a new skillset better suited for the future of medical practice in Hawai‘i."
Boosting engagement; enhancing learning
An emerging trend in medical education, learning communities are small groups of medical students with faculty advisors. Each comprises 24 to 28 students in different stages of their medical educations, blending first-year students with second-, third-, and fourth-year students.
Unlike cohorts of same-year classmates, these longitudinal relationships of new students, experienced students, and faculty mentors allow Hawai‘i’s future physicians to form connections with students graduating ahead of them, and following behind them as well.
Faculty advisors are role models in communication, empathy and patient interactions, staying with their learning communities from year to year, so students learn with them throughout their four years of medical training. The experience develops clinical skills, nurtures professional identity, provides career advice and encourages wellness—skills beyond the science of medicine for the benefit of our community.
A safe place to learn
Learning communities are a safe environment in which medical students may practice and make mistakes. In this setting, students learn relationship-based skills, such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, conflict resolution, organizational influence and team leadership.
"If medical students simply adopt technological practices without building physician-patient and physician-community connectivity, we will only see more distancing and dissatisfaction," says Hedges. "This major change in teaching, in conjunction with the expansion of our curriculum, anticipates these practice changes, sustaining the human connectivity we all need."
The new learning communities program began this July with enthusiastic financial backing from donors in the healthcare community. Hawaii Medical Service Association, UHA Health Insurance, Hawai‘i Pacific Health, and Mike Gold, a member of the JABSOM Dean’s Advisory Council, are among the Learning Communities program’s generous supporters.
Hedges says, "Our donors’ commitment provides resources to significantly evolve the manner in which we deliver medical education, with a growing focus on building healthy, resilient, professionally prepared students, residents and fellows."