Last July, the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine (KPSOM) welcomed its 50-member inaugural class under almost unimaginable circumstances. Beginning medical school is always challenging but doing so during a once-in-a-century pandemic meant that students—as well as faculty, staff, and leadership—faced unprecedented obstacles.
More than a decade in the making, the Pasadena-based school had to recalibrate everything from admissions interviews to instruction once the global crisis struck the United States last March.
“We certainly never anticipated opening a new med school during a pandemic. But our extremely creative and talented students, faculty, and staff rose to the occasion, adapted to the pandemic’s constraints, and made it work,” said Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, Founding Dean and Chief Executive Officer of KPSOM. “We learned so much together along the way.”
The first thing school leaders had to decide was whether to open in person, as planned, or adopt a strictly virtual learning environment, as many medical schools were doing. After consulting with deans, medical education experts, and local and national public health officials, the decision was made to pursue a hybrid method of instruction that would help facilitate stronger interactions between students, and between students and faculty, during the inaugural class’s critical first year.
The curriculum was painstakingly adapted to allow for physically distanced and masked delivery as well as virtual learning when public health conditions required it. The school’s Medical Education Building, built to accommodate more than 200 students once the first four classes have started, also provided enough space to be able to convene in person while following strict health and safety protocols including proper physical distancing.
“It has been a gift to be in a new school where we had the space to spread out and still be in person, but a real challenge to know my kids and spouse didn’t have the same privilege,” said first-year student Kelly Shriver. “As a family, it felt pretty isolating this year even as I was able to grow and flourish in this community as a student.”
While the biology of coronaviruses was already part of the curriculum, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the topic more urgency and provided an opportunity to teach students about vaccine development, hesitancy, as well as the ethics of distribution. Students had the opportunity to put their classroom training into practice by volunteering at a COVID-19 mass vaccination center in Southern California this past spring. Forty-two students rotated through all procedural aspects of vaccine administration and distribution under the supervision of 12 KPSOM faculty volunteers. The need to address healthcare disparities, which is central to the school’s mission, was also brought into stark relief by the health crisis.
The school was able to provide students with early clinical experience, as planned, through Longitudinal Integrated Clerkships (LICs) in family medicine or internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente clinical sites within their first few weeks of instruction. The service-learning curriculum, which places students at one of six federally qualified health centers on a monthly basis, followed shortly after. Depending on current health conditions, students interacted with Kaiser Permanente clinical teams and patients in person or through virtual means, providing a crash course in the growing provision of care through telemedicine.
“Talking to patients in the LICs has been the highlight of my year by far,” said Lucas Saporito, a member of the inaugural class. “I’ve learned so much from them. It is a blessing to be able to practice my clinical skills so early on in my medical education.”