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Med School, in Brief


The New Physician November 2000
Challenging the old adage that medical school isn’t for everyone, colleges and universities across the country are inviting their communities to lectures on topics usually reserved for first- and second-year medical students. Middle schoolers to retired professionals are learning the basics of anatomy, molecular biology, immunology and pharmacology.

Dubbed “mini-med school” by the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (UCHSC) in Denver, where the concept originated in 1989, the programs have spread to more than 80 schools in 34 states, plus the District of Columbia, Malta and Ireland. Dr. J. John Cohen, UCHSC professor of immunology and medicine, created the first lecture series to help the community understand what a medical school does.

“We never expected such an overwhelming response,” Cohen says. “After we sent out a press release, the newspaper ran a story saying, ‘If you’ve always wanted to know what your doctor knows, here’s your chance.’ By the end of the day, 1,200 people had called, and we were overbooked by 800.”

The “mini-med school” moniker is perfect for these programs, says Bruce A. Fuchs, Ph.D., director of the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Med school tells people, ‘This is serious stuff.’ And mini says, ‘But we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and you’re going to have fun learning this,’” Fuchs says.

Mini-med schools showcase the campuses’ best speakers—who are not necessarily their award-winning researchers—and provide insights into the medical sciences, as well as cutting-edge technology. They are not watered-down versions of classroom lectures but basic medical science presented in a manner accessible to the average high-school graduate. There are no prerequisites, and programs include question-and-answer periods where participants can clarify information and relate it to their own clinical concerns.

“The bottom line is that people are hungry for information presented at a level that doesn’t insult them,” Cohen says. He stresses that the lectures are not the typical “Your Prostate and You” talks offered by community hospitals. “This is med school, and that’s what people want,” he says. At the same time, lecturers strive to present materials in a lively manner, using handouts, props and videos.

UCHSC’s audiences are composed primarily of retirees, although attendees may include students interested in medical careers and others with a natural curiosity or concern about a loved one’s illness. Cohen also saves a few spaces for the spouses and parents of medical school students so they can better understand their family members’ experiences. UCHSC’s lectures, as well as those at other schools, are free, while some programs charge from $10 to $125.

Because of the number of attendees the UCHSC lectures attract—400 people on campus plus another 200 by satellite to rural communities—Cohen has eschewed the hands-on activities that some schools offer. Lecturers rely on their own charisma to bring life to their presentations.


The mini-med school at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU) in Springfield, created in 1998 by then second-year medical student Amod Sureka, continues to be operated each year by a committee of second-year students. One advantage: The student committee relies on personal experience in selecting lecturers.

“Medical students are subjected to many different lecturers,” says Greg Schmieder, a fourth-year SIU student and former mini-med school co-chair. “We know who’s knowledgeable and entertaining vs. who does great research but may not give a good talk.”

And for those who are selected, it’s a compliment. “Faculty are honored to be picked by the students. It says you’re doing a good job presenting your materials,” says Edward Moticka, Ph.D., SIU associate dean for research and faculty affairs.

The six-week series costs $15 and features two lectures per evening session. Each series reflects the current committee’s perspectives. In 1998, for example, talks focused on pathology, aspirin, microbiology and the immune system, while last spring’s lectures covered lower back pain, emphysema and osteoporosis. The sessions often conclude with “Open Up and Say Ahhh,” an opportunity for medical students to demonstrate and explain a physical examination.

SIU’s lectures attract 70 to 80 participants, many of whom are senior citizens who want to be better health-care consumers. Schmieder advises medical students interested in initiating similar programs to study the NIH guide (see “Resources,” p. 14).


Responding to a misperception that the campus was unsafe at night, Fuchs arranged a co-sponsorship with a local museum when he began Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia’s (MCV) mini-medical school in 1992. Fuchs, then a professor of pharmacology and toxicology, designed the program with Eugene G. Maurakis, Ph.D., of the Science Museum of Virginia. The free lectures are held at the museum’s IMAX theatre and attract more than 150 participants.

“We try to mimic the med school experience,” says Beverly A. Rzigalinski, Ph.D., MCV’s current mini-med school faculty coordinator and professor of pharmacology and toxicology. This fall’s program focuses on the brain, emergency medical care, coronary artery disease, hypertension and the gastrointestinal tract. The spring series usually covers one topic in-depth, and these have included DNA, cardiology and pharmacology.

“We don’t have a typical student,” Rzigalinski says. Some take the courses for [continuing education units], while others attend just for fun. People gain a lot of medical knowledge that is going to help them make decisions and better understand what their physicians are saying.”


Fuchs also has coordinated mini-med schools in the Washington, D.C., area. He established the NIH campus’ mini-med school, which regularly draws more than 500 people to lectures on basic biomedical topics. A Capitol Hill series, sponsored by the NIH and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), duplicated the NIH lectures for hill staffers. Few participants had any science background, but Fuchs says they were fascinated by the topics and their policy implications.

The NIH and AAMC have also coordinated mini-med schools at a high school and settlement house in inner-city, predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Frustrated that the NIH school attracted a primarily Caucasian audience, Fuchs set out to prove that the program could be successful with any group. He says the settlement house event, targeted at elderly residents, was especially well-received and has been taken over by a community church.


Training doctors to practice in Missouri has long been a goal of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Medicine (MU). To help attract underrepresented minorities and students from rural communities, MU initiated “High School Mini-Medical School” in 1999. The week-long, summer residence program hires second-year medical students as counselors/ tutors. Funded by MU and state health education centers, the program is free for the high school students, who are selected for their interest and academic abilities.

During this past summer, more than 60 high schoolers participated in two mini-med schools. Medical students developed the problem-based curriculum, using the same case-study approach employed at MU. This year’s case focused on a newborn who had shown complications at birth. The high-school students attended presentations from specialists, studied lab reports, researched concerns and presented their findings to the group. The program also featured tours of the anatomy lab and the neonatal intensive care unit at the health center’s hospital.

“This interactive approach shows students what our medical school is like,” says Jean Hall, coordinator of academic programs and records. “Our counselors communicate just how focused and hard the work is and help students understand the variety of directions available to them.”

High-school students are also the targets of the summer mini-med school begun in 1996 at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. An average of 30 students participate in the four-week session, which includes a weekly lecture and separate lab. Topics draw from the medical school curriculum as well as current medical advances. Participants, who must have completed a year of biology and a year of chemistry, have studied clinical medicine, pharmacology and sickle cell anemia. “Students get a taste of science as it is taught on the college level in a medically oriented institution,” says Pam Fitzer, director of science education.

Fitzer also coordinates a mini-med school for adults, which attracts “people from [ages] 16 to over 90.” For $85, participants can choose from “Mini-Medical School I,” which focuses on the basic sciences taught in the first two years of medical school; “Mini-Medical School II,” which covers the clinical aspects of medicine familiar to third- and fourth-year students; or theme programs featuring such areas as cardiovascular health and genetics. The fee covers expenses and helps raise money for the college’s Center for Science Education children’s program.

“Probably the No. 1 reason people are here is to get up-to-date health information from a reliable source,” Fitzer says. “They enjoy keeping up with the latest developments, and that fits in with our goals of increasing science literacy and making participants more informed health-care consumers.” And lecturers enjoy the direct contact with the public, she says. “This is an opportunity for them to showcase their research and gain some visibility from a community that isn’t reading the professional journals,” Fitzer says.


Researchers get the chance to highlight their ongoing studies in the University of Florida College of Medicine’s (UF) mini-med school. “We focus on our four areas of national and international strength,” says Arlene Phillips-Han, director of public information for the Health Science Center in Gainesville. The four areas—brain science, aging, cancer and diabetes—are explored through lectures, tours and hands-on activities.

UF’s “Brain Institute” mini-med school covers brain research, pain imaging, mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease. Participants tour laboratories to learn about brain anatomy, magnetic resonance imaging and patient simulation. “In the brain surgical training lab, neurosurgeons allowed participants to probe cadaver brains under microscopes,” Phillips-Han says.

This year’s mini-med school on aging was held at a handicap-accessible church and covered UF research, memory and aging, and the value of exercise. “Our primary mission is to provide the community with free education they can use,” Phillips-Han says. “We introduce our current research but make sure our speakers are primed to bring it back to what is applicable now.”


“I’m touched when people with serious illnesses come to learn everything they can,” Phillips-Han says. “They want to know how to care for themselves and ask better questions of their physicians and nurses.”

MCV’s Rzigalinski concurs: “You can see on people’s faces that they’re learning things. I enjoy having science trickle down to the general public because, after all, they’ve funded it, and they need to know more—particularly when there is so much [to learn that] you can almost be overwhelmed.”

Then there’s the benefit of watching a mini-med school participant pursue a medical career. Fuchs recalls two women who had foregone medical school only to enroll 15 years later after a mini-med school rekindled their interest. And last year Cohen learned that a 12-year-old boy who had attended the UCHSC 1989 program had just entered medical school. He remembers the boy calling him personally when he learned the lecture series was filled. “He sounded heartbroken when he said, ‘All my life I’ve wanted to be a doctor,’” says Cohen, who found a place for him and his mother. “He sat in the front seat and took 10 million pages of notes.”

Whether students attend mini-med school out of natural curiosity, to explore career interests, or to obtain medical information, directors find their own involvement rewarding.

“In today’s medical environment, doctors have to be more efficient. You might only have five minutes per patient, and that’s not enough time to explain a disease process. Mini-med school has showed me that people really want to understand what disease is, how we treat it, and the results—that’s something I’ll take with me when I go into practice,” says SIU student Greg Schmieder.
Peggy Ann Brown is a freelance writer/researcher based in Alexandria, Virginia.