Within a few months of arriving at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, a medical student may have already saved someone’s life.

That’s because Greenville medical students spend their first seven weeks training to become certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs). After receiving EMT certification, students work one 12-hour shift with the county’s ambulance service each month during their first and second years. From day one, medical students are introduced to the diversity of patients and populations they’ll be caring for, according to Tom Blackwell, MD, a clinical professor at Greenville and director of the school’s EMT Training Program.

“We’re teaching [students] how to do a history, take vital signs, how to critically think and problem solve in the first six weeks. It really builds their confidence,” Blackwell said.

The experience is one of many ways medical schools are giving students direct clinical and patient care experiences early in their educations, long before they begin clerkships. Experiences range from EMT training to serving as health system navigators to working alongside community health workers. In addition to enhancing medical education, students who have the opportunity to get early clinical experiences also add value to local health care systems.

A focus on social determinants

At Penn State College of Medicine, first-year students are immersed in a required Systems Navigation curriculum, initially launched as a pilot in 2014. As part of the new curriculum, students spend a few weeks learning how health systems function and about the many social determinants of health that patients face. Then they begin work as health system navigators in one of dozens of local clinics, where they help real patients overcome social challenges to accessing care and staying healthy.

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