Palliative care module within a required geriatrics clerkship: taking advantage of existing partnerships

Acad Med. 2002 Sep;77(9):936-7. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200209000-00042.


Objective: LCME has recently required that all graduating medical students learn about end-of-life care. This program describes the design and integration into an existing geriatrics clerkship of a palliative care module that teaches the foundations of end-of-life and palliative care to medical students.

Description: Faculty experts in geriatrics met during a series of weekly meetings in 1999 to design a mandatory four-week-long clinical clerkship in geriatrics. Since the palliative care program is based within the geriatrics department, faculty members with interest and expertise in both geriatrics and palliative care were invited to design a palliative care module that can be integrated into the clerkship. Since LCME does not specify details of what students must learn about end-of-life care, and our goal is to educate and prepare students for any chosen specialty, we wanted to design a basic core curriculum in palliative care that would be useful to any graduating student. After reviewing potential palliative care topics, and given limited curriculum time, we condensed the medical student core curriculum to the following sessions: (1) Systematic Pain Assessment Management, (2) Management of Distressing Symptoms, (3) Communicating Bad News, and (4) Advance Directives. We developed PowerPoint presentations, teaching case vignettes, and a set of reference articles, which can be distributed to students as well as to help faculty teachers prepare for the sessions. Teaching sessions occur in small groups, using case discussions and interactive lectures. Sessions 3 and 4 are co-facilitated by palliative care physicians and ethicists, who use role-plays, reflections, and discussions to teach the topics. At the end of the clerkship, students practice these communication skills with videotaped standardized patient encounters, and debrief with faculty members about their performances and ways to improve their communication skills.

Discussion: Palliative care sessions are welcomed by the students, who traditionally have not received much teaching in this area. Even though students have learned about mechanisms regulating pain and other symptoms in the past, they have not learned to assess or treat symptoms in a systematic way. Students often have good questions about the decision-making, legal, and ethical issues that emerge for patients near the end of life. Thus, co-facilitation of physicians with ethicists presents both the practical clinical and the theoretical perspectives, and provides a good model for team teaching. In terms of teaching style, students are more involved and participatory when teachers use case vignettes as compared with slide presentations, even if they are case-based. When using role-plays to teach students how to communicate bad news, we found that students need to feel safe in that environment, need to know they can call for time out when necessary, and want to have seen one done before they are asked to do one.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Clerkship / methods*
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods*
  • Geriatrics / education*
  • Humans
  • Models, Educational*
  • Palliative Care*
  • Partnership Practice*
  • Terminal Care*