Explore UAB

Written by Kiara Harris

Learning CommunitiesPictured Above (L to R): Jeremey Walker, M.D., (Assistant Professor, Infectious Diseases), Aditi Jani, M.D., (Chief Medical Resident), Director of Housestaff Starr Steinhilber, M.D., (Assistant Professor, General Internal Medicine), and Mauricio Khan, M.D., (Infectious Diseases Fellow)  

Medical school students face unique challenges throughout each phase of their learning process. Principles for maintaining mental wellness and improving professional skills such as ethics or applying for residency are often left out of textbooks.

In 2009, the Heersink School of Medicine created Learning Communities (LC) to address these essential components of medicine. The program provides medical students a safe place for inclusive discussions and fosters longitudinal relationships that promote personal wellness and professional development. Students are assigned to one of eleven faculty-led communities and remain in the same network throughout medical school.

Caroline HaradaProgram Director of the Heersink School of Medicine Learning Communities Caroline Harada, M.D., (Associate Professor, Gerontology, Geriatrics, and Palliative Care) Originally, the communities were led exclusively by faculty mentors. In 2017, Program Director and Associate Professor Caroline Harada, M.D., restructured the program by enlisting 18 additional mentors comprised of residents and fellows, or Housestaff volunteers.

Starr Steinhilber, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Pittman house lead mentor, and current director of the Housestaff Mentor program, says that adding the Housestaff to the program has strengthened the LC curriculum. She explains that trainees validate the significance of each lesson by providing feedback and sharing how the subject matter has been relevant to their training. “Although faculty feel like we remember what it was like to be medical students, it is not quite the same as having someone who was in your shoes more recently,” Steinhilber explains.

Former UAB medical student and second year faculty Jeremey Walker, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, is the second faculty mentor who has experienced the Learning Communities program at every level: medical student, Housestaff volunteer, and faculty leader.

He recalls that during his time in medical school, the program did not function in the way that it does today. He explains that the LC program primarily provided opportunities for students to network during social gatherings.

During Dr. Walker’s residency, the School invited Housestaff to join the LC team. He remembers being impressed by the new structure of the program. “My first thought then was, ‘Wow, this is quite amazing!’ It was something I thought would have been important to experience in medical school.”

He describes the program as an opportunity for students to consider topics they may not otherwise explore. Through open discussions, the students examine diverse thought processes. Walker highlights how essential it is for him to cultivate a safe space for students to openly discuss their perspectives, opinions, and experiences.

Third-year medical student Isabel Girling acknowledges the benefits she has acquired because of the program. “The biggest thing for me is the built-in community.” She emphasizes how meaningful it has been to be able to share her medical school experience with a group of people she feels comfortable with.

According to Girling, the Housestaff add tremendous value to the program. She notes that medical students and residents rarely have an opportunity to interact outside of clinical rotations. Gaining insight and having honest discussions with trainees about their experiences, matters of ethics, and the culture of medicine expands her knowledge of what to expect during her medical career.

This year medical students were welcomed to campus with 77 Housestaff, 20 of whom are returning. The influx of volunteers allows each community access to seven additional mentors. Steinhilber explains that this allows Communities to divide into even smaller groups. As a result, conversations become more enriched.

UAB’s Learning Communities have inspired at least one medical student to engage in promoting wellness and professional development in the future. “I’ve learned the importance of humility and to value to a variety of opinions, because everyone has something to offer,” Girling continues, “I want to teach in the future, and I feel like becoming a Housestaff mentor would provide a great opportunity to grow those skills and get to interact with medical students,” concludes Girling.