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More Old People Classes

Burzynski, Maria

doi: 10.1097/01.ACM.0000357306.12968.50
Other Features: Teaching and Learning Moments

Ms. Burzynski is a third-year student, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; (

As I sat in the classroom during my first year, my head swimming with physiology and biochemistry, I longed for the time I would interact with patients on a daily basis. “If only I could be a third year already,” I thought. Partway through my first year, I had to decide how I would spend my “last summer of freedom.” Ultimately, I joined a geriatrics education study, despite the deep temptation to lounge by the pool enjoying a book that did not weigh 10 pounds.

The study evaluated third-year medical students’ competence in caring for geriatric patients and emphasized injury, including falls, and medications. I would spend my days following the very third-year students I envied as they interacted with patients.

Going in, I was fully expecting some rejection. However, everyone was very welcoming and didn’t seem to mind that I kept making checks on my observation sheet, which included whether the student asked the patients about their medications. The third-year students just seemed happy to finally have someone following them around for a change, to have someone to whom they could show the ropes. During down time, they even gave me study tips for the next year.

All was well until I had an encounter with one particular student. She, like her classmates, was more than helpful to me. Her interactions with the patients were always cordial, and she took time to listen to their concerns. However, at the end of my observation, guessing that my project was focused on geriatric patients, she emphatically stated, “I don’t want to have more old people classes.”

I was shocked. How could such a nice and welcoming student have such an attitude? More “old people classes?” What in the one training year that separated us caused her to feel this way? Could this be me one year from now? Did she not realize that no matter what specialty she would eventually enter she would have geriatric patients? All these questions blasted into my head as I tried to hide my utter disbelief in her response. I left the clinic that day questioning our interaction, the study, and my own education.

Originally, I viewed the project as a chance to explore my interests, to learn how to do an observational study, and to have a glimpse of the future that seemed so far away. After this student’s striking comment, however, I realized how desperately we need to change how medical students learn about older adults. The geriatric patients I saw were clinically complex, with varied perspectives, and rich with life experiences. As I returned to the classroom ready for the next round of classes and exams, I thought about the patients I will help in the not-too-distant future and realized that they are the reason why I gladly look forward to “more old people classes.” I only hope that I can get my fellow students to see their geriatric patients as more than just “old people.”

Maria Burzynski

Ms. Burzynski is a third-year student, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; (

© 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges