A Challenge to (In)directly Best Serve Patients

Editor’s Note: The following post is the third and final in a series on the Colleges at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, featured in the September issue. Read the first and second posts in this series.

By: Cameron Upchurch, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine Class of 2016

The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine aims to train future physician-leaders to positively impact human health. Many medical schools share a similar goal, yet Vanderbilt does at least one thing differently. Vanderbilt enables us, its medical students, to meet a real-time goal they believe is intrinsic to best serving patients: being well in our own lives.

I chose Vanderbilt because, on my first visit, I quickly sensed this unique emphasis on wellness. I wanted to live and practice medicine like the students and faculty I saw that day. Upon reflection, I realized that the school’s learning communities, described in a recent article in Academic Medicine, played a significant role in creating this supportive environment. As medical students, we work hard for our current and future patients, but participating in the learning communities inspires us to work just as hard toward leading a balanced life. It is vital that we wake up everyday and work toward being well—professionally and personally—to offer our best to patients. This is an essential learned skill, similar to learning how to conduct a physical exam.

Being well-rounded is not only preached but also practiced. In small-group College colloquium, we bond with our classmates and College mentors as we discuss ethical and emotional topics relevant to the medical profession. The faculty mentors in our learning communities help us establish personal and professional goals. They diligently promote and ensure our wellness. My College mentors host parties at their houses, hold weekly “office hours” to chat, take us to trampoline gyms, take part in community service events, and coordinate outings to restaurants around Nashville.

Wellness at Vanderbilt extends beyond faculty mentoring. Each student is matched with a student in the class year above, called a ‘big’. Bigs serve as the wise, all-knowing elders who have been there, done that. They organize practice tests and parties. Each big-little pair has a unique approach to promoting wellness. I, for example, go to my big and grand-big (my big’s big) with questions about schoolwork and where to find that week’s free music shows. My entire ‘family’ cooks dinner together before any of us has a test. I look up to my big and grand-big as they achieve success in school as well as in their personal lives. Their example drives me.

It takes stellar people and much effort to create something as special as our learning communities. Vanderbilt faculty members serve patients, conduct research, teach, head departments, and run residency programs, yet these commitments don’t prevent them from maintaining their wellness or ours. This is what I believe makes the learning communities so effective and Vanderbilt so amazing. Students wholeheartedly embrace the constructive system they see in motion. Our work on wellness, mentoring, and balance becomes something we do, as obviously beneficial as brushing our teeth every morning.

Some may question whether class time is lost on class-wide wellness retreats, College colloquiums, personalized learning plan meetings, or wellness elective classes (where students can get school credit for getting together to maintain their hobbies, like playing music). My response: this time spent away from books is the opposite of lost. At Vanderbilt, patients come first, but we also work hard on ourselves. I know I will strive to maintain my wellness no matter where I am. And that will allow me to be the best not only for my patients, but also my colleagues, students, mentees, family, and friends.

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One Comment

  1. Kemi Tomobi
    August 9, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    My heart goes out to Vanderbilt; it is the institution with a certain professor that has a connection to Dr. Levi Watkins, a cardiothoracic surgeon that I have had an opportunity to interview at the Johns Hopkins Hospital for a project that recognized the history of African American contributions to the Johns Hopkins University.

    The discussion on wellness is very relevant.  Physicians have to balance many things and still pay attention to their health.  The act of “caregiving” can be stressful for any healthcare provider.  Yoga and other regular exercise are great stress relievers.  However, the emphasis on “being well” may mean different things to different people and I hope that the proper advising and mentorship can get one to seek the path that makes one well.  For some, medical school is a source of stress, for others, the structure and the opportunity to be among those fulfilling the same purpose is actually the “relief” that makes one “well,” thus, medical school is not necessarily the “stressor.”  

    I like the reference to “Bigs” and “Littles”  and “grand-bigs” and “Grand-Littles”.  I wonder how these matches are made?  The fact that there is a multigenerational bond (with three class years) is amazing.

    Many thanks for your post.


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