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Heritage College leads the way in teaching primary care

 
 


Jane Balbo, D.O., is instructor of record for Introduction to Primary Care.

 
 
(ATHENS, Ohio — Sept. 9, 2014) These days, it seems, everyone in the medical profession is talking about the importance of primary care. So it must be an important part of the curriculum at most medical schools, right?

For the most part, the answer appears to be no, but the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is one exception. Last year, the Heritage College launched its “Introduction to Primary Care” course for first-year students, and college researchers have completed a soon-to-be-published study on its impact.

The intensive, weeklong course provides students with a foundation of basic science and clinical knowledge as it relates to primary care and allows them to take part in standardized patient labs and lectures on the doctor-patient relationship to begin developing clinical reasoning skills.

The goal is to give new medical students a sense of what primary care is and why it matters in the medical profession. In the words of instructor-of-record Jane Balbo, D.O., (’07), it addresses the question, “What is it that first-year students really need to know as they begin their journey in the medical world?”

Balbo, an assistant professor of family medicine, also serves as a family practice physician at Campus Care, the student health services program for Ohio University students. Campus Care services are provided by University Medical Associates, Inc., the not-for-profit health care organization and faculty practice plan of the Heritage College’s clinical faculty, and are overseen by the college.

Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth Johnson, D.O., said the primary care course clearly fits well with the college’s mission. “Since our college was founded in 1975, it has always been a leader at the state and national levels in promoting the value of primary care,” Johnson noted. “Dr. Balbo and her colleagues are keeping us out in front on that effort. Teaching students the basics of primary care starting in their first week makes perfect sense for our mission, and I can only hope other medical schools will follow our lead.”

With one installment of the course under their belts, researchers at the college surveyed students to gauge how it changed their perceptions. The research, though limited in scope, suggests students leave the course with better opinions and knowledge of primary care than they had coming in.

The study used a “primary care attitude scale,” comprising 25 statements to which students rated their level of agreement. Statements included a range of views about primary care physicians, from the belief that they earn less money than other specialists and focus less on research, to the notion that most of them are female and that “primary care doctors will always have a job.” Participants also wrote a short answer to the question, “How has your perception of primary care and what primary care doctors do changed over the course of the week?”

Students took the survey before and after the course, and the study compared the two sets of scores.

“Overall, people didn’t have extremely negative attitudes about primary care (to begin with),” reported Elizabeth Beverly, Ph.D., assistant professor of social medicine and corresponding author on the resulting paper. “But we definitely showed impact in 20 of the 25 questions. Before the class, students didn’t really know how to define primary care. After the class, they see the value of primary care.”

The biggest change was in response to questions about how well-trained primary care physicians are and how demanding their practice is. After the course, students tended to agree more strongly that “primary care medicine is diagnostically challenging” and that “primary care doctors receive the same amount of training as other specialists.”

The paper, accepted for publication by the journal Family Medicine, and expected to be published in early October, concludes that “an intensive primary care course can change medical students’ attitudes toward primary care, emphasize the importance of primary care in the health care system, and dispel myths and misconceptions about the field.” It says further study is needed to determine whether this will translate long term into more students choosing primary care for their practice.

Balbo and Beverly agreed that a grounding in primary care is of value both for students who plan to practice in primary care and in other specialties. “I think a lot of specialists will acknowledge that to be a good specialist, you have to be a good generalist,” Balbo said.

Although primary care is a hot topic in medicine, the Heritage College’s introduction to the subject appears to be one of the few such courses – perhaps the only one – being offered in the nation, Beverly said. “I haven’t found any specifically in the U.S.,” she said, though she acknowledged that other medical schools may offer similar material under a course name that doesn’t include “primary care.”

The course has been an eye-opening experience for first-year medical students at the Heritage College, Balbo said. “Things made more sense to them after going through the block. Even visits to their own doctors made more sense.”

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Last updated: 01/28/2016