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Medical School Curriculum

February 13th, 2013  |  Published in Applying to Medical School

When I first applied to medical school, I spent a lot of time researching different schools so that I could find the right school for me. One major difference between schools is the way they teach their curriculum. There are two different styles:  organ systems-based and traditional (disciplinary-based) curricula.

Medical School class at Albert Einstein SOM in 1955


The Organ Systems-Based Curriculum

This curriculum is probably very much like your high school biology class. Each chapter in your book was about a different organ system and your tests required you to know everything about that system. Many medical schools have begun to move away from the traditional curricula and adopt this curriculum. Temple University School of Medicine has a true organ-systems based curriculum. As you can see here, in each system, the development, structure, pathology, and physiology of that specific system are taught together.

The Traditional (Disciplinary-Based) Curriculum

In this curriculum, you won’t see the organ systems in your course titles. Instead, the individual components of medical education, pathology, physiology, and biochemistry, are taught separately. A great example of the traditional curriculum is Ross University’s pre-2010 curriculum and West Virginia University’s curriculum, although the latter includes problem based learning.

So, does it matter?

Originally my thought was that I studied best when I understood how everything I learned was connected; because of this I was drawn to the organ-systems based curriculum. But when I think about the past four years I spent in college, I’ve realized that no matter how a material is presented to me I will seek ways to make those connections even if they aren’t spelled out for me. Plus, I found this study which analyzed student performance over ten years across many institutions and compared the curriculum at those medical schools. The result: no significant difference in USMLE scores no matter the curriculum taught.

Instead, what interests me now is Problem-Based Learning. Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is essentially meeting with a group of your classmates every week to discuss a clinical case or case study. These sessions are meant to build upon what you learned in class and get you moving from the pre-clinical knowledge your learn in your basic science courses during medical school to the clinical knowledge you learn later on. Many schools have PBL in their curriculum; Hofstra-North Shore LIJ filmed one of their PBL sessions. Watch their video to get an idea of what a PBL session is like. The downside of PBL is that you have get less time to study for class because you have to meet for your PBL sessions. Another potential con of doing PBL is that it may feel somewhat pointless. Check out this parody video of PBL to get an idea of the (exaggerated) horrors it can be. Research of twenty years of PBL has shown (somewhat inconclusively) that PBL is not beneficial to medical education. But, PBL can be interesting because of its clinical discussions and the social component.

I recently enrolled in a free Coursera course called Clinical Decision Making. We discuss the problem solving process that expert clinicians use to diagnose patients. Ultimately, they need to completely reorganize the information they were taught in medical school in order to quickly arrive at a diagnosis. With this in mind, I’m confident that no matter the curriculum taught at the medical school I attend, I will be no better or worse for it.