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Creating a Virtual Pharmacology Curriculum in a Problem-Based Learning Environment: One Medical Schools Experience

Karpa, Kelly Dowhower RPh, PhD; Vrana, Kent E. PhD

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31827c083d

Integrating pharmacology education into a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum has proven challenging for many medical schools, including the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine (Penn State COM). In response to pharmacology content gaps in its PBL-intensive curriculum, Penn State COM in 2003 hired a director of medical pharmacology instruction to oversee efforts to improve the structure of pharmacology education in the absence of a stand-alone course. In this article, the authors describe the ongoing development of the virtual pharmacology curriculum, which weaves pharmacology instruction through the entire medical school curriculum with particular emphasis on the organ-based second year. Pharmacology is taught in a spiraling manner designed to add to and build upon students’ knowledge and competency. Key aspects of the virtual curriculum (as of 2011) include clearly stated and behaviorally oriented pharmacology learning objectives, pharmacology study guides that correspond to each PBL case, pharmacology review sessions that feature discussions of United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)-type questions, and pharmacology questions for each PBL case on course examinations to increase student accountability. The authors report a trend toward improved USMLE Step 1 scores since these initiatives were introduced. Furthermore, graduates’ ratings of their pharmacology education have improved on the Medical School Graduation Questionnaire. The authors suggest that the initiatives they describe for enhancing pharmacology medical education are relevant to other medical schools that are also seeking ways to better integrate pharmacology into PBL-based curricula.

Author Information

Dr. Karpa is director of medical pharmacology instruction, Department of Pharmacology, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Vrana is chairman, Department of Pharmacology, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

First published online December 23, 2012

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Karpa, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, Department of Pharmacology, R130, 500 University Dr., Hershey, PA 17033; telephone: (717) 531-1621; e-mail:

© 2013 Association of American Medical Colleges