Living with Life Threatening Illness Course

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The Living with Life-Threatening Illness Course was designed to give first-year medical students the opportunity to learn skills for working with and caring for the seriously ill or dying patients, and to support their family members. 

The course is offered every fall semester, with a team of interprofessional faculty members. The content introduced fundamental knowledge, attitudes, and skills for working with dying patients and their families.  The care for these patients calls on many skills, personal experiences and values; inner resources for dealing with pain and loss; medical knowledge in diagnosing and managing symptoms; the ability to communicate and understand the experience of another person; and competence in understanding and resolving complex moral and ethical questions. Throughout the course, classmates and faculty explore and develop these dimensions together.

Each student is assigned to a patient-teacher with a life-threatening illness, and the focus of learning for the course is the student’s ongoing relationship with the patient-teacher and his or her family. Structured learning experiences (large group case discussions, seminars, role plays, and guest lecturers) address topics such as responses to suffering, symptom control, grief and loss, spiritual concerns, and ethical dilemmas. Students also meet in small groups led by faculty, to have discussion and learn from their peers’ experience. It allows students to receive supervision from experienced clinicians and to reflect on personal reactions to the visits with the patient-teacher.  Meaningful relationships are formed by having multiple informal visits throughout the course and feedback has indicated that the experience is impactful and rewarding for both the patient-teacher and student. As the course nears the end of the semester, students are expected to practice another difficult component of care, that is, ending the professional relationship with their patient-teacher. This skillset helps students learn of appropriate patient-provider relationships and is often one of the most difficult parts of the course.

View the course experience from the patient-teacher perspective.

To nominate someone to serve in the patient-teacher role, you must be their healthcare provider or on their care team. Click here for additional information.

Course feedback from students
“It is easy to make idle, light chit-chat with patients but extremely difficult to force ourselves to be present and accountable for the hard conversations as well.”
“As a medical student, I am constantly focused on disease processes and molecular machinery of the body and it has been a wonderful experience to interact with you first and foremost as a full, complete person and not as an illness that I am learning about in class.”
“My patient-teacher taught me so much about how to live life in the moment and how to remain present so that we do not pass up the amazing gift that each day holds.”
“I think this class was supposed to teach us how to be present with another person, to simply be with them and form some kind of relationship at the end of their life, a time that feels mysterious or even scary. All in all, I would say we accomplished that mission.”
“My patient-teacher has given me the confidence to truly begin my journey as a physician. Here are just a few lessons you taught me that resonated with me: Be timely with tough news, don’t wait; Be present when giving difficult news, do not stand in the doorway; Don’t wait to tell people who you love the things you want to say. Now is the time; Always speak in plain language with everyone in the hospital. Jargon has almost no place in the hospital and you’ll know where it fits."
"Your wisdom will live through me and all the others I will have the fortune to heal and teach through medical school and beyond."