In preparation for medical school and my future career in healthcare, I read Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book initially, but came to find that it offered insightful, thought-provoking commentary on a “good death”, aging, and geriatric care. In the book Dr. Gawande points out there are not enough existing palliative care specialists or geriatricians to meet the needs of our aging population. He goes on to suggest that every doctor should be trained to work with older patients in some capacity. This led me to wonder if medical schools were hearing this call to action and making the needed changes to their curriculum to adapt to the demands of society and its aging population.
Fast forward a couple years, and I have finished my first year of medical school with a few answers to my curiosities. I have discovered that medical schools across the country are implementing a variety of programs to give students experience working with geriatric patients. At Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, students are required to complete an online geriatric curriculum. At Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, all the preclinical courses work to incorporate lessons on the care of older adults.
In my personal experience at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, I was part of the inaugural session of the program: Geriatrics Connect. All 100 first-year medical students were given the name and number of a patient from the community that we were to call five times over the course of six months. Each call had a loose agenda for students to follow with the program’s goals in mind: learn about healthy aging, the needs of older adults, and how to take a “life history”.
The patient assigned to me was an 84-year-old woman with a life story that would make for a bestselling biography. With our first phone call, I learned that she and her parents immigrated to the US when she was 12 after surviving Nazi persecution. She told me how they learned to speak English by reading the newspaper as they built a life in New York. She grew up, married a young lawyer, and had children. She spent her time as a librarian at Columbia University, even auditing a course taught by a rotating professor named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In our first chat, I walked away with a more detailed history than with any traditional patient encounter I had ever had. Yes – I learned a lot about her general life story, but I also gained the most in-depth social history I could have ever attempted to take. I think programs like mine offer a great place to start developing our skills for working with older patients, but I hope there continues to be opportunities for learning as we move forward with our education. After all, nearly 10,000 Americans turn 65 each and every day.
Claire Graves is a 2nd year medical student at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.