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Denis O’Day, M.D., is honored for his last year as director of the Emphasis Program, which he launched in 2004. (Photo by Anne Rayner)

Students discover a broader emphasis in O’Day’s program

BY: CAROLE BARTOO

5/03/2012 - 

Denis O'Day, M.D., right, greets medical student Alejandro de Feria  during poster presentations for the Emphasis program. This is O'Day's last year as director. (Photo by Joe Howell)

Denis O'Day, M.D., right, greets medical student Alejandro de Feria during poster presentations for the Emphasis program. This is O'Day's last year as director. (Photo by Joe Howell)

The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Emphasis Program’s annual poster presentation event, held last week, represented the end of more than 18 months of hard work for second-year medical students.

But this year it also represented the final presentation viewing for a founder of the program, Denis O’Day, M.D., professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, who is stepping down from his role as director.

Emphasis is a two-year research requirement for all Vanderbilt medical students. O’Day signed on to launch the Emphasis Program in 2004, after his retirement as chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, to bring him back into greater contact with students.

“I was always interested in teaching, so coming back to work with people who are entering the system was wonderful. It has been a gift to be able to do it,” O’Day said.

Emphasis evolved from its original form as a lab-based research requirement when the School of Medicine began to renovate overall curricular goals. Beginning in 2001, teams of students and faculty worked to re-design the requirement into a program that would provide a much broader opportunity for growth and discovery.

Students can select from a menu of eight areas including traditional clinical, laboratory and bioinformatics areas, as well as ethics, community health, health care quality, and policy. Students keep a portfolio and journal for reflection, and they have the opportunity to work with experienced mentors.

Jenny Raab, a second-year medical student, presented her poster, which studied a teaching effort put in place by staff and faculty at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. Her mentor was Mark Meredith, M.D., a Pediatric Emergency Medicine physician.

“It was great because I want to go into pediatrics. I learned things I didn’t expect to. I was able to see first hand where gaps are in chart documentation, and how to use biostatistics to examine evidence, as well as how the health care team comes together around the care of a child,” Raab said.

O’Day says the Emphasis Program encourages students to be open-minded about where projects can take them, and to be flexible within the work.

“In medical school we provide tools. Then, when you are working as a physician you learn to use those tools for the betterment of the patient. One of the things we hope students learn in these projects is to take the right approach every day. If they can do that, they won’t wear out,” O’Day said.

Barbara Clinton, M.S.W., faculty adviser for the Emphasis program, said O’Day’s own training in Australia taught him a similar flexible, problem-solving, and broad-minded approach to medicine.

“His empathy for patients as they exist in the world may have helped him stay excited about health and communities throughout his long career. Emphasis Program students have benefited greatly from this. He always made time to come to the dinners and meetings we had for students as they worked on their projects, and the students were thrilled,” Clinton said.

In 2004 O’Day helped recruit more than 60 faculty members to serve as mentors for the program. Now more than eight years later, several hundred faculty have stepped forward to mentor and guide. He says the commitment of faculty and staff has been a key to its success, a sentiment the students echo.

“As my project changed, my mentor, Dr. James Powers, helped me to see that learning the skill of flexibility was an important lesson in itself,” said second-year student, Carmen Rodriguez, whose project piloted an electronic record system to flag potentially dangerous medication interactions in geriatric patients. Rodriguez said the project will influence the rest of her training.

O’Day said he is gratified to see so many Emphasis Projects that have led to greater things. He says some students have written to him years later to let him know the program caused them to remain involved in other aspects of health care, like policy and community support.

“Our goal is that they learn how critical and creative thinking within the structure of research has the capacity to move medicine forward. It is a critical step in the development of physician,” he said.

Long-time program supporter and mentor of Laboratory-based research projects, Lillian Nanney, Ph.D., will serve as interim director of the program for the next year. Planning is under way to design a new version that will fit the new medical school curriculum, which begins in July.

Nanney noted that the Emphasis Program under O’Day’s leadership has impacted more than 700 students during a formative phase of their development into physicians.

O’Day says he plans to spend more time with his family, including his wife, Ann, his three sons and five grandchildren.

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