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Vital Signs

Too much coursework? Try some hair of the dog!

By James DiClerico

For medical students whose "chief complaint" is intense coursework, a proven cure seems to be more courses. Courses, that is, that they've designed or on subjects that they've chosen.

Electives organized by students let them "follow their passions and not lose parts of themselves" to the rigor of medical school, says Dr. Joseph O'Donnell, senior advising dean. And students are often "way ahead on societal trends," he adds, so it's not unusual for elective subjects to later be absorbed into the formal curriculum.

Kalindi Trietley, the director of learning and disability services, coordinates these "enrichment" electives. She says the program allows DMS to be sensitive to "pockets of interest that aren't big enough for a course but [are] very valid." There are more than 30 current offerings, on topics from wilderness medicine to medical Spanish. The program, now 10 years old, includes both student- and faculty-initiated courses; each is overseen by a faculty member.

Two electives offered last term—Medical Anthropology and the Art and Craft of Medicine—offer a window on why and how such courses come to be.

Katherine Ratzan's interest in medical anthropology dates from some courses she took before coming to DMS. "I thought others might find the perspective from that field . . . refreshing," she says. She set up six lectures; one, "Asian Medical Systems in Interaction with Biomedicine," was given jointly by a U.S. physician and a Tibetan physician. "Students discussed the idea that science itself is culturally mediated," Ratzan says, "and this must be kept in mind when interacting with patients who do not hold the same set of beliefs."

The art elective had its genesis when Daniel Kaser took a one-year leave from DMS to pursue his interest in art. This experience reinforced his belief in the importance of art in healing. Upon his return to DMS, he organized a course combining studio work with classes led by an educator at Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art. "Students are encouraged not only to draw, but to talk about what they have drawn," Kaser says. "Further, we look at objects in the Hood galleries . . . and discuss what we see. This practice of observation and oral presentation is critical to medical encounters."

Wake: O'Donnell likens such electives to "letting a thousand flowers bloom." He sees them as part of the constant renewal of the formal curriculum. For example, he says, international health is a subject on which "the institution is coming along" in the wake of student interest.

Visit the Office for Learning and Disability Services for more about the enrichment electives.

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