WMU News

Grant boosts hands-on learning for PA students

Aug. 19, 2002

KALAMAZOO -- Sitting in a lecture hall taking notes might not be most people's description of an ideal learning environment.

With that idea in mind, the Department of Physician Assistant at Western Michigan University is studying if there might be a better way. Faculty members are fine-tuning a new curriculum that incorporates a more hands-on approach to learning with the help of a federal grant.

The three-year, $469,357 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resources and Services Administration will allow students to use real medical cases to learn the process of diagnosing symptoms and prescribing treatment.

It's all part of a "problem-based" learning program established three years ago with another federal grant. New grant money will allow for further assessment of whether problem-based learning works better than the more traditional lecture-based model.

"The students use real medical cases to teach themselves the medicine they need to function as a physician assistant," says James Van Rhee, chairperson of WMU's Department of Physician Assistant. "Students work in small groups of five or six students with a faculty facilitator or tutor. Each week, they work through a new case just like they would with a real patient."

Special texts let students ask questions about a patient and get the patient's history. Students may also conduct a physical exam or order lab work. In some cases, members of the community are brought in as "simulated patients." They learn the role of a specific patient, pretending to have contracted a certain disease. Students interact with them as they would a real patient and come up with a diagnosis and treatment plan.

The program is modeled after a similar program at Southern Illinois University. Van Rhee says that WMU is the only university to offer both problem-based and lecture-based physician assistant curricula. He says the problem-based method offers many advantages and that early results are encouraging.

"It makes students lifelong learners and teaches them to problem-solve, which is something they're going to have to do for the rest of their lives," Van Rhee says. "We can't teach them all the medicine they will need to know in two years, so we need to teach them how to learn for themselves."

Van Rhee says the problem-based approach also is more flexible than the lecture-based method. Many students who enter the physician assistant program already have training in the medical field. With the problem-based method, those students don't have to study what they already know and can concentrate on subject areas in which they need additional skills.

Offering the two learning tracks has turned into a research project to see which method achieves the best results. Van Rhee and his colleagues will continue to compare the two methods by gathering additional data, such as test scores and performance on clinical rotations.

"Our first group just finished its second clinical year and our second group just finished its first year, so it's real early in the data collection," Van Rhee says. "But the preliminary results have been very encouraging. I think it holds a tremendous amount of promise."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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