Future Physicians Learn How to Learn

Harvard Medical School's New Pathway

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series examining the New Pathway curriculum at Harvard Medical School.

In 1987, Harvard Medical School made a dramatic shift away from the traditional medical curriculum in an attempt to prepare doctors for the complex world of 21st century medicine.

Rather than forcing students to memorize large quantities of medical facts and spend hours each day in lecture, the "New Pathway" emphasizes problem-oriented learning, small group discussions, increased emphasis on patient-physician relationships and self-directed study.

Harvard administrators have hailed the program as an innovative approach that would truly teach future physicians how to treat patients.

At the time of the curriculum's inception, some critics wondered whether New Pathway students would gain a solid enough grounding in the basic sciences to become competent doctors. Others questioned whether the program's emphasis on small-group interactions between faculty and students would be transferable to schools without Harvard's financial resources.

This year, the class of 1991, the first entire class to go through the New Pathway curriculum, graduates, and the report cards on the program are coming in. So far, most bear favorable marks.

New Pathway Philosophy

The New Pathway is based on the philosophical premise that it is no longer possible for anyone to commit the entire body of medical knowledge to memory. Instead, the program takes a liberal arts-oriented approach to medicine by teaching students how to think critically.

Myra B. Ramos, associate dean for educational planning at the Med school, says the program was increase in the rate of medical knowledge. It was becoming increasingly difficult to memorize all the information necessary."

"We wanted students to learn how to learn and how and where to find the knowledge needed, as the responsibility for learning to students, they become very active in the learning process, rather than passive recipients."

Elizabeth Armstrong, director of curriculum development at the Medical School, says that New Pathway will continue to pay dividends for doctors long after they leave Harvard. "We've accomphshed establishing patterns of lifetime learning," she says.

As part of the program, each medical school class of around 170 students is assigned to one of five "societies," which have advising roles similar to that of the undergraduate houses.

In 1985, the program began on an experimental basis when 24 students participated in the Holmes Society. The following year, 40 students took part in the same society, and in 1987 the entire school became part of the New Pathway with the creation of Cannon, Castle and Peabody societies.

In addition, students could join the already existent Harvard-MIT program in Health Sciences and Technology, which includes M.D./Ph.D. candidates.

Small Group Tutorials