A Fresh Take on Medical School


When one thinks of medical school, what follows, generally speaking, are mental images of really thick and intimidating-looking textbooks, students working on cadavers, and really long words that most of us have never heard before.

All of those things are still very large parts of the medical-school equation, but now there are some very different images coming to life thanks to a unique new program in Springfield — the Baystate campus of UMass Medical School .

These images are of students trying to stretch their food dollars at a local store, or visiting the county jail to interview inmates about their health and well-being and the factors contributing to it, or visiting a homeless shelter to talk with those staying there.

All these episodes, if you will, are embodiments of what’s known as PURCH (Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health), the program being administered on the Baystate campus at the Pioneer Life Sciences Institute on Main Street.

Students enrolled at the Worcester campus of UMass Medical spend one day every other week in Springfield. They spend some time in the classroom, but a good deal of it is spent in the field, or those settings described above, to be exact.

This is a different kind of learning experience focused on population health, especially in urban areas, and it is designed for those who might want to work in such settings — and to inspire them to do so.

Population health is a broad term generally used to discuss strategies and programs to help keep a population healthy rather than merely treat individuals when they’re sick. But that’s an oversimplification. Population health puts great emphasis on the so-called social determinants of health, including where people live, how they live, and factors such as poverty, and how they contribute to the health of a community.

And this, indirectly, takes us to that food store in Springfield, where students took $125 in food stamps and essentially tried to make it cover a family for a month — while also trying to keep proper nutrition as the basis for their decisions.

They found out, and rather quickly, just how difficult this assignment was — and is for those who have to do it for real. They found they had to essentially drive right past the fresh fruits and vegetables because they’re too expensive and don’t keep for more than a few days. And instead of turning down the meat aisle to find protein, they instead put eggs and peanut butter (both on sale, as it happened) in the cart.

And the students involved admitted they weren’t even hampered by such-real life factors as screaming children and having to fit everything they were buying into a few bags because they had to walk home or take the bus.

‘Eye-opening’ was the phrase these first-year students used to talk about this experience and others they’ve been part of through PURCH. And collectively, they talked about how such assignments will make them not only better doctors, but advocates for needed changes that will address some of the social determinants of health.

As one of the program’s administrators put it so eloquently, students display genuine curiosity about working actively to be part of the solution.

Already, that curiosity is turning into action, and it seems clear that this pattern will continue through medical school, into residency (wherever that is, hopefully here), and in their practice (wherever that is, hopefully here).

Medical school will always be about thick textbooks, long, hard-to-pronounce words, and work on cadavers. But through PURCH, an exciting, new, and very important dimension has been added.

Better still, it’s happening right here in Springfield.

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