Arlington Citizen-Journal

UTA pre-med students get unique preparation with help from Arlington hospital

Someday Dianna Nguyen plans to put Dr. before her name. But first, the UT Arlington spring graduate faces four years of medical school and all the hard work and sacrifice that goes with it.

Thanks to a new partnership between the University of Texas at Arlington and Arlington-based Texas Health Resources, Nguyen got a taste of what it might be like when she reaches the end of that long road.

This spring she was among 12 students to participate in the university’s first pre-medical student preceptorship program. The initiative, which administrators believe is the first like it in the state, lets undergraduates pursuing pre-med coursework accompany physicians at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital and do everything from consulting with patients to observing in the operating room. To earn course credit, students are required to complete and present research-intensive case studies based on the procedures they see.

So far, reviews from doctors and students have been overwhelmingly positive. The next class of 24 students from UTA’s colleges of science, engineering and nursing and health innovation has been accepted for the program this fall. University officials say it is a part of UT Arlington’s strategic commitment to improving health and the human condition.

“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” said Nguyen, who was paired with Dr. Shushan Jacob, a hand surgeon. “But this really strengthened those desires because I saw how much a doctor can help others.

“This really showed me the impact physicians can make in other people’s lives.”

For the thousands of students a year who apply to Texas medical schools, statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges show how challenging it can be to gain admission. At UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, for example, just 232 of 4,407 applicants were accepted in 2014.

Dr. Joseph Borrelli Jr., an orthopedic surgeon on the medical staff at Arlington Memorial, has worked with students for years in positions at Cornell University, Washington University School of Medicine and UT Southwestern. It always surprised him to encounter one who “didn’t have a good grasp of what they were getting themselves into,” he said.

Borrelli, who is also on staff at Orthopedic Medicine Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Arlington, began talking with Kent Long, health professions adviser in the UT Arlington College of Science, in 2013 about how the hospital and university could expand work together. The idea for the preceptorship program came from their wish to give students an early look at what being a physician really means. Similar programs exist at Caltech and Auburn University, but they aren’t common.

“I just wanted to broaden [the students’] horizons, if you will, in addition to recharging their batteries,” said Borrelli. “It’s a long road, and it’s easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal.”

Ashley Purgason, UTA assistant vice president for strategic initiatives, said the program has been “extremely well received.”

“One of our students was brought to tears of joy discussing her experience, which was pretty powerful to see,” said Purgason, the program’s faculty adviser and coordinator. “Overall, what the students have conveyed to me is that the idea of this early exposure … really sort of sealed the deal for them, in terms of their passion is more prominent now for wanting to go to medical school.”

Borrelli said he wanted to make sure students were exposed to dedicated physicians in multiple disciplines. It would allow them to see what’s available to them and figure out what might fit their interests. Students were encouraged to follow up their time shadowing physicians in the clinic and operating room with questions to explore why situations unfold as they do.

Long, who is responsible for helping students prepare for medical school admission, is hopeful the experience will help students stand out from the crowd.

“They’re seeing what a day-to-day is like for a physician, and that’s something medical schools want to know — not just that this is a dream you’ve always had but that you know the practical applications of that,” Long said.

Borrelli hopes the experience also impresses on students the importance of communication and the relationship between patient and doctor.

Nguyen said she saw how much effort Jacob put into building those bonds. The surgeon worked to connect openly and honestly with the patients, and they trusted her to fix potentially disabling conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, Nguyen said.

Stephanie Diaz, another participating student, said the pilot program’s access is invaluable. She was assigned to a neurosurgeon, Dr. Sabatino Bianco, and observed surgical procedures, including a frontal craniotomy, or removal of part of the skull to perform surgery on the brain.

“Not very many pre-meds get to go in and observe surgery. If you get lucky, you get to put your foot in the door somewhere, but mostly it’s observing at clinics or private practice. So to be able to get into the operating room with this program, I think it sets UTA students apart,” she said.

Another student, Wade Nedderman, agreed that the pilot program gave him clinical experiences that pre-med students elsewhere just won’t have. He also had high praise for the classroom portion.

“It’s more than just shadowing. We also interact in a journal club where you break down research papers and case studies and learn how to read them with a critical eye,” Nedderman said. “That class was the class that simulated med school more than any other class I took.”

Long said the case-study portion of the preceptorship is designed to illuminate the way students’ academic learning and research connect with real-world applications in the medical field.

Strengthening those connections is something Arlington Memorial is pleased to support, said Dr. James H. Sammons Jr., the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Sammons said UT Arlington and the hospital have a “natural link” due to their proximity and interest in serving the community. The school’s current direction also inspired the collaboration, he said. He complemented UT Arlington President Vistasp Karbhari, who came to UT Arlington in 2013, for driving a strong commitment to healthcare in North Texas. One of the four main themes of the university’s Strategic Plan 2020 is a focus on “Health and the Human Condition.”

Purgason, the program coordinator, said the new program also helps UT Arlington fulfill what has become a 21st-century imperative for higher education: demonstrating education’s value in achieving professional success.

“Students want to know their career path,” she said. “They want to know they’re going to be connected with a career and a job when they leave this university. They expect us to connect them with that next step, as well they should.

“An experience like this that has them interacting directly with someone in the profession they hope to go into, that’s the best thing in the world we can do for our students. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”