A dose of reality

Image of Lisa Howell speaking to the class, looking at information on an overhead projector.Lisa Howell, who works in Behavioral Health, Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare, speaks to a Wednesday morning class.

Over 20 years, area doctors share real-world case studies with biomedical science students

As a UW-La Crosse student in the 1970s, Dr. Ward Brown, M.D., helped launch UWL’s first rugby team with friends while pursuing the academic rigor of graduate studies.

“I love UWL,” says Brown. “It was a friendly environment and an intellectually stimulating place.”

Headshot image of Ward Brown.

Dr. Ward Brown, M.D.

That’s a big part of the reason Brown, now a cardiologist at Gundersen Health System, returns to campus every year. For 20 years, he has presented to students in a pathology and pharmacology course, sharing case studies and the practical side of his profession with young people planning for heath care careers.

Brown and several other doctors from Gundersen and Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare speak to UWL students in the class, “BIO443-Molecular Mechanisms of Disease and Drug Action” each spring. Many, like Brown, have provided practical presentations for the class since it started.

“As pre-med students, we tend to idealize physicians. But this is not ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ‘M*A*S*H.’ …,” says UWL senior Tyler Billman. “When they come in, we are able to see what this profession actually looks like.”

UWL professors Aaron Monte, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Scott Cooper, Biology, created the course 20 years ago, combining their knowledge to help students understand the biological basis of diseases, as well as the medications that have been developed to treat them. While they offer the theoretical background, the doctors are able to share real world, clinical case studies, bringing students the more human side of the profession.

UWL senior and biology major Megan Phillippi, who plans to attend medical school, calls the class one of her all-time favorites. Regular visits from doctors have helped her see how to apply the technical information from Cooper and Monte, she says.

Billman, a biomedical science major with psychology minor, says the class is a combination of his primary interests in biology, pharmacology, physiology and chemistry — as well as caregiving. A part-time nursing assistant at Gundersen Health System, he says medical school may also be in his future.

Good prep for medical school

UWL Alum Michael Gyorfi says the class was the closest thing to medical school he experienced before starting it at UW-Madison in fall 2016. There, his lectures are given by doctors who share case studies, which he says helps him learn the information and understand why it is worthwhile.

Medical schools and similar programs are increasingly using case-based lectures with multiple instructors. Gyorfi appreciates this style of lecture, which keeps him motivated to learn. “Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and how the information we are learning pertains to real people — it grounds you and makes you happier going through this,” he says.

During a Wednesday morning lecture in the UWL class, Lisa Howell, who works in Behavioral Health, Psychiatry and Psychology at Mayo, explains several cases, pausing to ask students what questions they would begin to ask if they were in her position.

The relationship with the patient is more than a diagnosis. It involves two-way communication — as much listening as talking, says Dr. Todd Mahr, in Pediatric Allergy/Immunology at Gundersen Health System. That’s one of the main things he tries to communicate with students when he presents.

Mahr, who has been speaking to the class for close to 20 years, says he loves the opportunity to teach. The same is true for Gregory Pupillo, neurologist and chairperson of the Department of Neurology at Mayo Clinic Health System – Franciscan Healthcare. “I like the concept of connecting the clinical application to the underlying biology and I enjoy interacting with students,” says Pupillo.

Pupillo recalls how clinical rotations during his third year of medical school helped solidify his own comprehension of the material.

“It is wonderful that they invite physicians and others in the community to take part in things like this,” notes Pupillo. “I think the university adds a lot to our community, and it’s nice to be able to give back to the university.”

Brown hopes his interactions with students ultimately helps them have the same well-rounded education he did entering medical school. “That is extremely important — especially when trying to relate to your patients,” he says. “If you understand where they are coming from … and the issues they are having, you can provide better care.”