Dr. Mark Schuster on opening Kaiser Permanente's new med school during a pandemic

When Mark Schuster, MD, PhD, was named founding dean of Kaiser Permanente's new medical school nearly four years ago, he didn't expect to open it at the height of a global pandemic.

He told Becker's last year's grand opening celebrations were canceled because of COVID-19. But the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, named in honor of Kaiser Permanente's late chairman and CEO, still opened in Pasadena, Calif., last July albeit with slightly less fanfare. 

"We had envisioned a big celebration and converted to having the students and a small number of representatives from the school open within the school with masks and distancing," said Dr. Schuster. "We also were able to give tours of the school building [in small groups with distancing and masks] because most students hadn't seen it yet. They hadn't been able to come visit in the spring."

The school has been able to remain open during a public health crisis while adjusting to pandemic protocols and safety measures. 

Dr. Schuster said among the first decisions to be made was whether to conduct primarily virtual or hybrid learning for the first class of 50 students. After speaking with other medical school deans and public health experts, he and other medical school officials decided in-person learning, even with masks and distancing, was best, if possible, to facilitate stronger interactions between students, as well as students and faculty. 

"We looked at our options," said Dr. Schuster. "We have a building designed for more than 200 students, but only have 50 in the first-year class. We realized we could take our small groups of [students and faculty] and put them into much larger rooms than we had planned because we had the space. We really could have our curriculum be primarily in-person, with screening to get into the building and constant cleaning, along with masks and distancing."

While most classes have been in-person, there has been some virtual learning. For instance, students learned virtually how to take a medical history from a standardized patient. 

"We thought it would be good to see facial expressions more fully," explained Dr. Schuster, adding that this hybrid approach has worked well. 

Students also provided input as the first year in the medical school evolved. Dr. Schuster said students wanted more unstructured time, and the medical school was able to reorganize the weekly schedule so students had an additional unstructured afternoon each week to use for studying or meetings. The school also allowed students to take their weekly quiz any time between end of the day Thursday and in the middle of the day Saturday. After student input, the school reduced redundancy in the work students are required to do before classes. 

COVID-19 has been integrated into the curriculum. 

"Coronavirus was already in the curriculum, but now it was more salient to the students. We, of course, taught how to prevent, diagnose and treat COVID-19," said Dr. Schuster. "And then we were already teaching about health disparities, but this gave us an opportunity to have an example playing out in front of our students in terms of differences in diagnoses and treatment and effects varying based on people's racial ancestry or ethnicity or resources, socioeconomic status."

He said the pandemic also created an opportunity to teach students about vaccine development and distribution and the ethics of vaccine distribution. 

And he said the curriculum is unique in that it is not lecture-based, but rather small groups, with the three pillars of biomedical science, clinical science and health system science integrated into every week. 

"Rather than have a semester of anatomy, you're learning about the anatomy of the heart when you're learning about the heart and the clinical aspects of cardiovascular health and illness. It makes all the training much more efficient, much more relevant, much more compelling," he said. 

The medical school's goal each year is to have about 48-50 students, although there is capacity to increase that number over time. The current academic year ends in July. 


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