Getting an Early Start: Developing the MD-MEd Program at Vanderbilt University

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By: William Sullivan, MD, MEd

William Sullivan, MD, MEd is a fourth-year resident in internal medicine and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is the first Vanderbilt Medical School graduate to earn both the MD and MEd degrees jointly. He will be chief resident in internal medicine during the 2018–2019 academic year.

When I was a third-year medical student at the VA hospital in Nashville, an attending physician posed a simple question that fueled my desire to delve deeper into medical education. “How do you think about acute kidney injury?” he asked, after silently listening to my presentation. I was speechless, because I could not find the answer in any medical record or textbook. Thankfully, by modeling his own thought process, I was able to conceptualize a framework for this metacognitive skill. We worked together to develop this skill over the next two weeks, which sparked a craving in me to understand reasoning, how people learn to reason, and how to teach reasoning. It ultimately led me to facilitate the creation of the joint MD and Master’s in Education (MEd) degree at Vanderbilt University, described in a recent Academic Medicine article.

When I started this journey in 2011, I was fortunate to have the Peabody College of Education, a national leader in educational research and training, literally right across the street. At the time, I had peers taking time off from medical school to complete MPH degrees, MBA degrees, and research fellowships. So, why couldn’t I pursue my interest and seek additional graduate training in education? As it turns out, I could! It just hadn’t been done before. Working in concert with the Dean for Undergraduate Medical education at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) as well as the faculty director of the Program of Learning and Instruction at Peabody College, I modeled the five-year program after five-year programs already established at Vanderbilt (e.g., MD-MBA, MD-MPH) as well as joint MD degree programs at other institutions, already published in the literature.

Initially, I had some logistical kinks to work out, and I learned that each school’s registrar was going to be an integral part of making this new program work. In communicating regularly with the registrars, I was able to ensure that credits would be transferred appropriately and that the tuition I would pay each semester was accurate and went to the right place! Patience, open communication, and administrative support have allowed the program to grow. Four other students have since enrolled or graduated, and we are working to craft developmentally appropriate medical education competencies for program participants.

Medical students and residents who take additional time to pursue training in experimental design, business, public health, and statistics enter their professional careers primed to contribute to their institution and profession in an area they are passionate about. I wanted to incorporate the skill set of an educator early in my career so that I could become a better teacher (like the faculty member who inspired me), understand concepts in medical education, and influence the field on a larger scale.

As I finish my residency, my educational training through the MEd program has already proven valuable. I now have a variety of unique, critical lenses through which to view teaching and learning encounters with students, peers, and patients. When students and interns ask me questions, I’m not likely to give them a direct answer. Rather, I ask them what they know, how they are thinking, and provide scaffolding so they can reach their own conclusions. I give better feedback and ask better questions. Faculty have asked for my input when thinking about designing educational materials. Recently, I met with my program director to discuss ideas for a “training the trainer” feedback event hosted by Graduate Medical Education at Vanderbilt. Also, because of my learned skill set on how to be a thoughtful educator, I will have the amazing and humbling honor to be a chief resident one year from now.

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