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December 8, 2005

Palliative care training funded for med students

When patients no longer respond to curative treatments, medical students often find themselves ill equipped to assist with the complex physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs associated with dying.

A $1.1 million four-year grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) will enable faculty at Pitt’s Institute to Enhance Palliative Care to integrate information technology and clinical experiences as they train and prepare third-year medical students to care for a growing population of seriously ill and dying patients.

The grant focuses on on-line and in-person learning to develop and improve students’ knowledge about communicating bad news to patients, managing pain and other symptoms, improving their abilities to recognize emotional, existential and spiritual distress in families and patients with advanced disease, and increasing students’ emotional comfort with dying patients.

“The third year of medical school is a crucial time in future doctors’ exposure to the realities of clinical medicine — not only in human biology but also in their encounters with human suffering,” said David Barnard, director of the Institute to Enhance Palliative Care, professor of palliative care and medical ethics at Pitt’s School of Medicine, and professor and director of palliative care education at Pitt’s Center for Bioethics and Health Law.

“The real innovation in this grant is our use of advanced information technologies to provide educational resources to these students each time they encounter a patient whose care involves end-of-life issues, and our ability to monitor each student’s exposure to these end-of-life skills,” Barnard explained.

“When a student encounters a patient in need of palliative care, the student and his or her supervisory residents and faculty are automatically sent a link for specific, related on-line learning, a ‘just-in-time’ approach to medical education,” said James B. McGee, whose educational technology lab is developing these learning tools. McGee is an associate professor of medicine and the assistant dean for medical education at the medical school.

Recent attention to the care of individuals with advanced life-threatening illnesses points out the inadequate training of health care personnel in symptom management and other end-of-life skills. Furthermore, graduating medical students often rate themselves as poorly prepared for tasks including pain management for the dying, addressing patients’ fears, cultural issues and spiritual issues, assessing symptoms of the terminally ill, helping families during bereavement and implementing palliative care plans.

Since 2000, Barnard and his colleagues have implemented a program in palliative care training for first- and second-year medical students, also funded by a NCI grant.

The Institute to Enhance Palliative Care is a collaboration between Pitt and Family Hospice and Palliative Care. The institute also works with departments, schools and centers at Pitt.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 8

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