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By Barb Bragiel ’91
Hiram College’s reputation of strength in science education has been bolstered by a recent partnership with another local institution, Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED). Starting in fall 2014, the two schools will collaborate to offer the new NEOMED-Hiram College Baccalaureate to M.D. Pathway Program.
For the past 18 months, Professor of Biology Sandy Madar has been one of the driving forces behind this effort. Madar, who graduated from and has taught courses at NEOMED, was familiar with the school’s mission to attract more students interested in primary care medicine. She also learned that it wanted to expand its ties beyond Kent State University, Youngstown State University and the University of Akron. It recently added Cleveland State University to its cadre, and Hiram officially joined the NEOMED consortium in March 2013.
“I knew that NEOMED was looking to get back to generating primary care doctors to serve northeast Ohio,” explained Madar. “There’s something about Hiram’s culture of learning – its campus culture – that attracts students to get into primary care. Our unique curriculum produces the kind of students that NEOMED wants.”
The origin of that unique curriculum is built on Hiram’s tradition of excellence in the sciences, dating back to more than 80 years ago when the then state-of-the-art Colton Laboratory was built. Hiram’s science programs back then even included women, which was unusual for that time. Later, in the 1960s, what is now the James H. Barrow Field Station was constructed, offering students more hands-on science opportunities.
Today, in addition to majors in biology, chemistry and physics, students can also pursue degrees in biochemistry, neuroscience and biomedical humanities. According to Madar, Hiram graduates about 35 students per year with degrees in those areas.
The biomedical humanities major, one of the most recent offerings, wasn’t established until 1998. Madar, along with Professor of Chemistry Colleen Fried, dreamed up the program to take advantage of Hiram’s Center for Literature and Medicine which provides interdisciplinary programs, courses and summer seminars that integrate humanities and healthcare. Realizing they had an amazing, yet under-utilized resource on campus, the two drew up plans for the current biomedical humanities program that combines an intensive science core with courses in medical humanities. Back then, there was nothing else like it in the country. Now, there are three or four similar programs, but Hiram’s remains the most interdisciplinary.
Madar strongly believes that college is exactly the right time to introduce students to the art of medicine and bioethics. Through the study of the humanities, and in particular, through literary works, students examine critical healthcare issues and the ambiguity that can surround them.
The biomedical humanities curriculum speaks to students’ interests in service and medicine. It not only benefits pre-med students, but also those pursuing careers in nursing, physical therapy and other allied healthcare careers. Beyond the traditional medical fields, Madar said that it’s also great preparation for many other fields such as healthcare law, healthcare administration and genetic counseling.
For students planning to attend NEOMED, they must either major or minor in biomedical humanities. Additionally, they must meet minimum admission requirements for grade point average and MCAT scores. Five seats have been allocated each year for Hiram graduates.
“We’ve just enrolled our first set of applicants for seats at NEOMED starting in fall 2016,” Madar said. “Four students applied as sophomores and all four were accepted. Assuming they do well on the MCAT, they will have a seat at NEOMED. We’re quite pleased that we’re four-for-four with applicants.”
While the partnership with NEOMED is just beginning, Hiram’s history of graduating students who go onto medical school is incredibly deep. Dr. Bill Smith ’66, who practiced family medicine for more than 35 years, attributes his success at Duke University Medical School to the strong science and liberal arts education he received at Hiram.
“One of the first classes I took in med school was biochemistry. Although that class wasn’t available at Hiram, I had no problem,” he said. “I had developed a solid background in biology and chemistry so I could understand what they were saying. Only because of my Hiram education did I have that understanding.”
Dr. Don Batisky ’83, director of the Pediatric Hypertension Program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, echoed that sentiment. He majored in chemistry and knew that he would take a lot of preparatory science classes at Hiram.
“I think the rigor of the science courses was a big advantage to be prepared to understand the fundamentals of science before going into biomedical science.”
Smith admits it wasn’t just the science courses he took that prepared him well for medical school. The variety of non-science classes he took at Hiram helped him fine-tune some of the other softer skills that are necessary in medicine.
“In medicine, you have to have soft skills or human skills,” he explained. “Some of the non-science classes at Hiram helped me with that. I learned how to write, think, talk and problem-solve. Those things helped a great deal when dealing with patients and families in difficult situations.”
To that point, Batisky credits his Hiram education for preparing him to be a physician even moreso than a medical student.
“It goes beyond solving any given equation or chemistry problem,” he said. “It’s the whole concept of analytical thinking, thinking outside the box. My experiences at Hiram left me better prepared for being more open-minded to dealing with different kinds of people, and the communication skills that come along with medicine were honed at Hiram.”
Batisky feels that the NEOMED partnership, along with the biomedical humanities courses, will produce high caliber medical students.
“With the ethics curriculum and the liberal arts experience, students coming from Hiram are going to be the strongest students coming through that pipeline,” he predicted.
Madar anticipates that to be true based on conversations she’s had with other fairly recent graduates who have come back to talk about their medical training.
“Hiram students say they feel remarkably well prepared at bedsides or in a clinic because they’ve spent time in small group settings, discussing issues in healthcare like death and dying, scientific merits, what is right, ethical and appropriate. They are light years ahead of their classmates,” she said.
In the long-run, the goal of the NEOMED-Hiram College partnership is to attract students interested in pursuing primary care medicine, or with an interest in serving in rural and urban medically underserved areas, particularly in Ohio. There are many tactics that both schools are employing to entice those students.
Madar said one of the things both schools aspire to do is to “allow” students to choose primary care. When it comes to either pursuing a specialty or going into primary care, many students decide to become specialists because over their lifetimes, they can expect to earn $2.5 million more than primary care physicians. Couple that with the daunting debt from medical school, and many students simply dismiss going into primary care as a viable option. NEOMED has received nine Choose Ohio First scholarships that are intended to retain more Ohio students in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) fields. By offsetting potential student loan debt for those choosing primary care medicine, both schools hope to make that discipline more appealing. Hiram faculty and staff are also thinking of ideas that would help pre-med students graduate debt-free.
Another way NEOMED and Hiram are recruiting students for their program is through an ambitious project with AmeriCorps VISTA’s Health Professions Affinity Community (HPAC). According to Madar, this initiative is designed to reach down to middle and high school students so that they can see the possibilities and diversity of options in healthcare. There are currently nine HPAC groups in northeast Ohio working on a variety of projects. At nearby James A. Garfield High School in Garrettsville, students are putting together a community health program about suicide prevention and drug use. They are working in conjunction with students from Hiram and NEOMED to develop educational materials and learn more about these specific issues.
Additionally, in this effort to foster interest in medicine, Hiram is offering a number of summer academies tied to healthcare. These academies are designed for high school students who want to apply their skills and knowledge to real world topics. This summer’s academies include three-day sessions on genomics and neuroscience.
Through a combination of scholarship, education and hands-on learning experiences, the expectation is that the pipeline between Hiram and NEOMED will generate a significant number of primary care practitioners for years to come.
Batisky couldn’t agree more on this approach.
“Students have to take advantage of opportunities to explore their motivation and why medicine is their chosen career,” he said. “My advice is to get involved in experiences that lead you to leadership positions. Go on a study abroad trip. Gain healthcare experience, even at a volunteer level, to see if you like it. Some people want to help patients, others want to cure cancer or invent the next medical device. There are a lot of different avenues. Figure out what makes you tick. A place like Hiram affords students those opportunities.”