Amid Pandemic, Kaiser Medical School Shapes New Healers

Photo courtesy Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine The Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine and founding Dean and CEO Dr. Mark Schuster (front, left) recently welcomed the inaugural class of 50 students with a hybrid learning model at a new facility in Pasadena.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has largely crippled in-person educational systems across the state, the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine opened its doors for the first time this week in Pasadena, immersing its inaugural class of 50 students in a hybrid learning model.
The highly anticipated school, which is offering free tuition for all four years of instruction to its first five classes, had to quickly — and creatively — revamp operations in the final steps to opening amid COVID-19.
“We will have a hybrid model of in-person learning and virtual platforms; we looked at every component of the curriculum and decided what made the most sense for that specific topic,” said Dr. Mark Schuster, the school’s founding dean and CEO. “We considered the full range of possibilities, and we are prepared to go fully virtual if we need to, but for now we are able to make it work with the hybrid model, and we think that’s going well.”
The school is also in the unusual position of opening its state-of-the-art, 80,000-square-foot, four-story building to just 50 students in its first year, though it will eventually house 200 plus. That left the administration with endless possibilities of creating small-group classes, Schuster noted.
“We have this enormous flexibility to do small-group learning because we have so much space to move them around, which has made it much easier to offer a hybrid model, where some of our learning is in person with distancing and masking,” he said. Schuster added that all students and staff members are screened and given temperature checks as they come into the building, which also has rigorous cleaning standards.
But the pandemic will likely forever mark the incoming class of doctors-in-the-making. The school is integrating COVID-19 into its case-based curriculum by examining the biology of the virus and addressing its clinical implications, integrating it into the context of racial and ethnic disparities, public health surveillance, vaccine development and delivery, and the impact of the economy on health.
“As our nation grapples with a devastating pandemic, long overdue attention to social injustice and entrenched disparities in health and health care, we are excited to train students who will become outstanding clinicians and skilled advocates for patients and communities,” said Schuster, who previously served as a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School and was chief of general pediatrics and vice chair for health policy in the department of medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Our students come from all over the country and they are super talented, compassionate, motivated, they care about people and communities, and they want to make the world a better place. They are just remarkable.”
The Kaiser Permanente school is joining a handful of others throughout the nation in trying to ease the burgeoning costs for already debt-burdened students to become doctors. A shortage of primary care physicians nationwide is, in part, because they are paid less than doctors in specialty practices, and graduates often choose those higher-paying fields to help pay off debt.
“About 85% of medical school students have some debt; the median is $200,000 and it goes up to $400,000. The concern is a lot of students don’t wind up attending medical school even when they get in because it is just so expensive,” he said. “We’ve also seen students who plan to go into primary care, pediatric or adult primary care ultimately go into other fields. Once they look at their debt as they’re working their way through medical school, they switch to higher-paying fields.”
While the new school will encourage all fields of medicine, Schuster noted, the goal is to let the students follow their passions.
“We want to support them in following their dreams. We want them to make their choices without having to consider the burden of debt,” he said. “We hope this will give them more flexibility in how they think about their futures because it really opens the doors to more students being able to attend medical school.”
More than 10,000 students applied for the 50 open spots at the Kaiser Permanente school, Schuster added. The admissions team worked around the clock to narrow the field and conduct virtual interviews to choose a diverse class that reflects the changing demographics throughout the country.
“We have a very diverse class in terms of race and ethnicity and socioeconomic background, age, non-science majors … It turned out that our class is diverse in many, many ways.”
The school has stated it has woven equity, inclusion and diversity into all aspects of its design, with student well-being at its core. To that end, there’s a dedicated course focused on supporting well-being and building resilience skills, sessions with a clinical psychologist, and robust academic support.
“We proudly welcome the inaugural class to our innovative new medical school that reflects Kaiser Permanente’s deep commitment to providing high-quality, affordable health care and improving the health of our members and the communities we serve,” said Gregory Adams, the consortium’s chairman and CEO. “I believe these students will be inspired by Bernard Tyson’s legacy as they gain the knowledge, skills and passion to become future physician leaders and health equity advocates who will help our diverse communities thrive.”
Students will be immersed in clinical education starting in week three of school as they learn from Permanente Medical Group physician preceptors and their care teams. Students will follow patients over time in integrated clerkships spanning their first two years of medical school, in Kaiser Permanente’s groundbreaking integrated health-care system, now in its 75th year as one of the nation’s highest-performing health care organizations.
Plans for the school began more than a decade ago, and formal development was put in motion by the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals boards of directors in 2015. After former Chairman and CEO Tyson unexpectedly died in November 2019, the school’s board renamed the institution after him to honor his deep commitment to it and his work on behalf of health equity and the health of communities.
The school worked in tandem with city of Pasadena and its design commission to build the sleek, modern building designed by the Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign on Los Robles Avenue.
“Pasadena has been extremely welcoming to our school and we really appreciate it … I hope the city and surrounding communities feel that the faculty and students who have come here will be great members of the community,” he said, adding that the city’s public health director, Dr. Yin-Yin Goh, has been a key partner to the school.
For the city’s part, landing its first medical school will be a dynamic component to its growing economic force, said Mayor Terry Tornek.
“Pasadena is very excited about Kaiser Permanente locating its new Tyson School of Medicine here. Kaiser is already one of our largest employers and this builds on that critical presence,” Tornek said. “Our city has become a center of medicine and biomedical research and the addition of this facility certainly strengthens this sector.
“Also, it should be noted that the sparkling new building is a wonderful architectural addition to the Los Robles corridor.”
Going forward, Schuster foresees the school’s students, staff and employees becoming an established part of the Pasadena fabric.
“We’re excited to be a part of Pasadena. We want to be good citizens, and we hope people will be excited by the vibrancy that our students, faculty and staff bring … we envision our students volunteering in various settings, like the homeless shelters, Chap Care, and we anticipate having a student-run clinic which will be overseen in a setting where it is appropriately supervised.”