Perspective: The Case for Subspecialty Clinical Learning in Early Medical Education—Moving From Case-Based to Patient-Based Learning

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The subspecialty departments are greatly underutilized for teaching during the first two years of medical school. While second-year students are spending most of their time behind closed doors in the laboratory, lectures, and small groups, the clinical environment is teeming with actual patients whose cases are often directly analogous to the material being learned. Moreover, even in today’s environment of increased emphasis on quality of medical care and medical education reform, many U.S. medical students still lack essential exposure to common technologies, tests, and procedures performed within several subspecialties. To remedy this situation, the authors propose that educators develop a system of subspecialty clinical learning for first- and/or second-year students correlated to the classroom study of the pathophysiology of the various organ systems. For example, the second-year cardiology course could be augmented with self-directed, patient-centered learning assignments in the cardiac unit, the pathology lab, the echo lab, and other areas.

The authors explain the several advantages of comprehensive subspecialty clinical learning (e.g., it will help prepare physicians to practice distributed care, aid development of competencies within the behavioral and social sciences, foster students’ professional development, and encourage creative approaches to issues of health care quality). The authors acknowledge the multiple difficulties of implementing such an approach, and present evidence supporting their argument that with the appropriate vision and leadership, such a living curriculum is important and achievable.

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