Talks at 'mini-med school' have broad appeal

Lectures on science behind breakthroughs attract lay people as well as pre-meds

Health & Fitness

October 19, 2003|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,Special to the Sun

A 90-minute lecture on cardiac catheterization procedures held after dinner in a stuffy Johns Hopkins Uni-versity basement should produce more low snores than bright questions.

But Martin Moylan, 70, as well as 149 fellow students crammed in the lecture hall, sat with rapt attention during a talk on the technology behind detecting and treating heart disease.

With three stents bracing the fragile vessels of his heart, perhaps Moylan had a little more invested in the class than other students.

But maybe those in attendance, many of whom were senior citizens, stayed alert because the topic is so frightening: Cardiovascular disease, which can lead to heart attacks, is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, Hopkins Associate Professor Jon Resar explained recently during the opening session of "mini-med school."

The school consists of eight noncredit courses this fall in which Hopkins' lecturers untangle the science behind headline-making medical trends and breakthroughs. Students are adults, and mostly from the general public.

"There is a real hunger out there for scientific knowledge," said Debra Knorr, acting director of the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education, whose own program has set the mold for the 90 or so mini-med schools nationwide.

At Hopkins, the "Frontiers of Medicine: A Mini-Med School," is a 3-year-old lecture series designed for students who want to become physicians, or for adults who just like to watch physicians on television and want to know more about medical issues.

"Every topic here is controversial, exciting and timely," said Neal Salomon, the mini-med school's coordinator. Subjects range from applying stem-cell research and conducting robotic surgery to healing with acupuncture.

"The lectures are delightful," said Ricki Baker, a Baltimore marketing consultant who said she probably missed her calling to become a doctor. "There is no practical application for me. All of it is just to satisfy my curiosity."

Although undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students participate, the class is designed for lay people to explore sophisticated medical topics, Salomon said. "You don't need a science background to attend."

About one-quarter of participants are pre-med students or graduate students fulfilling science requirements before they take medical-school entrance exams, said Tom Crain, director of Hopkins' Odyssey program, which administers the mini-med school. The rest, mostly middle-age or older, come from the general public.

"I have always taken art classes and the like," said Birgitta Moylan, 62, Martin Moylan's wife.

Birgitta Moylan, who works at the university as a research associate, said she is having an ankle replaced soon.

"I am getting older and I have aches and pains, and I want to know what is going on," she said, explaining her interest in the classes.

The concept of holding abbreviated medical school classes for the community began in 1990 at the University of Colorado, according to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH adopted its own model two years later, and created a curriculum that focuses on basic science and broad subject areas.

Hopkins' mini-med school follows some of the NIH guidelines, said Salomon, a former Hopkins associate professor of cardiothoracic surgery. But Salomon said he selected topics that "fascinated" him.

"It's not 'disease-of-the-week' stuff," he said. "We talk about research, a kind of more sophisticated approach to the practice of medicine, because the research of today is the practice of tomorrow."

Some classes, however, do focus on diseases and epidemics. In 2001, for example, infectious-disease experts lectured on anthrax, shortly before the contagion tainted congressional offices and killed five people.

One of this year's scheduled speakers is Donald S. Burke, a professor in the immunology department and the Bloomberg School of Public Health who years ago, according to Salomon, predicted a SARS-like epidemic in Southeast Asia.

In his lecture, Resar explained how catheters evolved over time from pipes and reeds to the micro-thin implements that have cut down the use of bypass procedures and the length of hospital stays today.

He discussed how the latest drug-coated stents approved by the Food and Drug Administration have proven to be far more effective in keeping clogged arteries open. Resar also answered questions about cost: The steep price of the newest stents -- roughly $3,500 -- balances out the expense of future treatment that patients with less effective stents may need.

"Science and medicine change dramatically and rapidly -- it would be even better if [Hopkins] held the school all year-round," said Ricki Baker, who has attended all three mini-med school sessions.

Mini-med school

"Frontiers of Medicine: A Mini-Med School," part of the Johns Hopkins University's Odyssey noncredit program, is held from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Nov. 25.

The fee is $99. Students may enroll at any time, and the school may prorate the fee for missed lectures. Classes are held at the Homewood campus at 3400 N. Charles St., in the basement of Shaffer Hall.

For more information, call 410-516-4842 or visit www. odyssey.jhu.edu.

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