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New Approach Draws Students To Fort Worth Medical School

Bill Zeeble
Student Kassidy Fretz (l) and teacher-physician (r) Ness Khan both check out Khan's patient in the exam room. What's different about this teaching scene is that Fretz is a freshman. It usually takes 3 years before med students have patient encounters.

After years of preparation, classes are underway at Fort Worth’s newest medical school – a partnership between Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Officials are hoping to modernize medical education. The new school has injected a creative curriculum designed to improve the health of future doctors and patients.

Wearing a white lab coat with stethoscope at the ready, medical student Kassidy Fretz welcomes a patient into the exam room.

“Okay,” says Fretz. “We’re going to ask you a few questions, if that’s okay. So can you just tell us what’s been going on since your last visit?”

We’re in the Weatherford medical office of Dr. Ness Khan, who guides Fretz through this exam with the patient who has high blood pressure.

“Any family history of heart issues?” asks Dr. Khan.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
First-year medical student Kassidy Fretz is learning some ins and outs of a medical practice from Dr. Ness Khan, a Weatherford internist. He's also teaching her the best ways to interact with patients - lessons rarely taught to freshman medical students.

“No,” replies the patient.  “And taking that into account, Kassidy, then we make a plan,” says Khan to both his patient and student.

Khan is overseeing a typical medical school encounter between a student and patient. Only this is not typical. Fretz is a freshman. Khan says these patient interactions usually don’t occur until a med student’s third year.

“We don’t want our students of today to be like the students of yesterday,” Khan says.

If the physician could have seen patients in his first year of medical school, he would have jumped at it. But that didn’t exist when he attended in the late '90s. 

“I wish that we were actually interacting with our patients from a very early time, so we could connect with them earlier,” says Khan. “We could learn certain elements of empathy, of being patient-focused and patient-centered very early.”

The TCU-UNT Health Science Center School of Medicine collaboration embraces these education techniques. What else is different at this new medical school? Every student also has a coach – a physician the student meets throughout the year to help diagnose any complications. Students also get a full dose of classes in empathy and communications. Fretz likes it all. 

“They are re-inventing the way that physicians are trained and specifically they’re focusing on the compassionate aspect,” Fretz says. “Yes you can be a doctor but caring for the patient and understanding what they’re going through is something that’s really important here.” Fretz says the early interaction with patients is already paying off.  

“I am not as comfortable as maybe some other people just because, like, I have never had hands-on experience,” Fretz says. “So it’s a learning process. I need experience to be comfortable doing it. This will really help my style of learning.” 

Another student, McKenna Chalman, likes the approach because it also benefits patients. 

“There are research studies showing it makes a difference in patient outcomes, in physician competency,” Chalman says. “We get exposed to things sooner, more often. We get exposed to clinics earlier on, just a more revolutionary way of approaching healthcare, I guess.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Dr. Evonne Kaplan-Liss is Assistant Dean for Narrative Medicine and Patient Communication at Fort Worth's new medical school. The campus, jointly run by Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center, is trying to break new ground in medical training.

That’s by design, says Evonne Kaplan-Liss, who helped create the program. The medical doctor with an arts and theater background, is the school’s Assistant Dean for Narrative Medicine and Patient Communication. With a title like that, she may be the only one of its kind. 

“These students are going to be trained to be empathetic scholars, and that is being a great doctor that communicates with compassion,” Kaplan-Liss says. “All patients assume their doctors know the medicine and how to be a great doctor. What they remember most though is ‘How did that doctor communicate with me? Did they listen to me? Can I trust them?'”

Kaplan-Liss says those “soft” elements of medicine may be hard to measure at times, but are increasingly recognized as having positive benefits.

“Research shows patients are less likely to sue for malpractice if they have a relationship with their doctor, for example, or their doctor was honest with them about what happened. They have a connection with their physician.”

A connection she says will improve outcomes for both doctors and patients.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.