July 29, 2021

Opening a medical school during a pandemic

A look back at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine’s first year.

Masked students, school leaders, and faculty members gather on the first day.

In July 2020, the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine welcomed its inaugural 50-member class under almost unimaginable circumstances.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the Pasadena-based school, more than a decade in the making, had to rethink everything from admissions interviews to instruction.

“We certainly never anticipated opening a new medical school during a pandemic. But our extremely creative and talented students, faculty, and staff rose to the occasion, adapted to the pandemic’s constraints, and made it work,” said founding dean Mark Schuster, MD, PhD. “We learned so much together along the way.” 

Adapting to the unexpected

The first decision school leaders had to make was whether to open in person as planned or adopt a virtual learning environment. After consulting with medical school deans and education experts from around the country, as well as local and national public health officials, the school adopted a hybrid approach: Some classes took place in the spacious medical education building. Built to accommodate more than 200 students once the first 4 classes are admitted, the building provided ample space for students and teachers to gather while still following public health guidelines for physical distancing. Other aspects of the curriculum were offered virtually.

First-year student Kelly Shriver appreciated the opportunity to forge connections with classmates and faculty members.

“It has been a gift to be in a new school where we had the space to spread out and still be in person,” she said. “I was able to grow and flourish in this community as a student.”

While the biology of coronaviruses was already part of the curriculum, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the topic more urgency. Students learned about vaccine development, vaccination hesitancy, and the ethics of distribution. They also put their classroom training into practice by volunteering at a COVID-19 mass vaccination center in Southern California. The pandemic underscored the importance of addressing health care disparities, an issue that’s central to the school’s mission.

It has been a gift to be in a new school where we had the space to spread out and still be in person. I was able to grow and flourish in this community as a student.

Patient-centered learning

The school was able to provide students with early clinical experience as planned through clerkships in family medicine or internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente medical centers. The clerkships will span students’ first 2 years of medical school, allowing them to work closely with physicians and care teams while seeing patients.

As part of the school’s service-learning curriculum, students were placed at 1 of 6 federally qualified health centers. Monthly meetings took place either in person, when public health guidelines allowed, or through phone and video appointments, providing students with a crash course in caring for patients through telehealth.

“Talking to patients has been the highlight of my year by far,” said Lucas Saporito, a member of the inaugural class. “I’ve learned so much from them. It is a blessing to be able to practice my clinical skills so early on in my medical education.”