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Undergraduate Medical Education in Nutrition

Nutrition Education at Harvard Medical School

For more than a decade, medical students at Harvard Medical School have been taking the required 14-week Preventive Medicine and Nutrition course during their second year. The course includes lectures on healthy diet, vitamins, supplements, obesity, international nutrition, cardiovascular disease, and accompanying tutorials.

Starting in Academic Year 2006-2007, the New Harvard Medical School Curriculum went into effect with reduced course time in Years 1 and 2. The Nutrition Curriculum will now be taught in August of second year, starting in 2007, and there will be a longitudinal component integrated with the Human Systems course. Drs. Delichatsios, Lo, Blackburn, and Walker are on the planning committee.

Nutrition Curriculum Committee

A Nutrition Curriculum Committee has been established to develop a nutrition curriculum for medical students during each year of the medical school experience. Initiatives already operational include the insertion of pertinent nutrition information into established courses in basic science during the first year including case reports of nutritional-based diseases.  Teaching in nutrition as part of the second year course in Nutrition and Preventive Medicine was established by Dr. Alexander Leaf several years ago and has continued under the leadership of Drs. Nancy Rigotti and Helen Delichatsios. This course has contained increasing nutritional material. Each year the students' critique asks for more nutrition input. The new course structure also involves about 25 faculty as tutors, a good indication of the growing community of physicians interested in this area.  Nutritional cases have also been included in the Pathophysiology of Gastroenterology and Hematology courses.

The DON, in conjunction with other medical schools, has provided two symposia on nutrition education for medical students. The first was held at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Washington, D.C., entitled, "Advances in Nutrition Education for Medical Students." This symposium was published in THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION in 2000 (Vol. 72, September, Number 3(s). The second symposium was presented at FASEB in 2002 entitled, "Innovative Teaching Strategies for Training Physicians in Clinical Nutrition: The Nutrition Academic Award (NAA) Medical Schools" and was published in the JOURNAL OF NUTRITION in 2003 (Vol. 133:541S-543S).

Over the years, HMS has made major modifications of their curriculum. They have reduced the first two years of didactic courses to 18 months in order to better prepare the medical students for interaction with patients. In addition, they have core clinical rotations during the third and fourth years in the same medical centers to facilitate access to follow-up of patients seen in other rotations. As a result of this  change in the curriculum, the Preventive Medicine and Nutrition Course has been eliminated. Accordingly, Drs. Delichatsios, Lo and Blackburn have worked closely with the new curriculum organizers to incorporate nutrition into all four years of the curriculum. 

In addition to these educational programs, the DON sponsors summer fellowships for medical students in order to provide a more in-depth experience in nutrition, clinical research and patient care. Programs from the last two years are listed. Harvard Medical Students who are interested in summer fellowships should contact Sally Burke by e-mail for more information. The DON also has actively established senior selectives in nutrition research across the Harvard teaching hospitals for those senior medical students interested in a nutrition fellowship after their residency training.

Nutrition Academic Award

In 2000, Drs. Francine Welty, Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center and Allan Walker, Massachusetts General Hospital, successfully competed for a Nutrition Academic Award from NIDDK to establish a strong nutrition curriculum at HMS.  This award is one of twenty such NIH-supported awards to medical schools throughout the United States to enhance undergraduate medical education in nutrition. See the NAA website for more details.

Nutrition in Medicine Program

HMS is one of ten medical schools chosen to pilot a CD-ROM Nutrition in Medicine teaching program for second year students developed in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by Dr. Steve Zeisel, Chairman of the Department of Nutrition, to provide in-depth nutrition education in various aspects of disease. Drs. Walker (MGH/HMS Hospitals) and Bruce Bistrian (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center) are members of the Advisory Board for this Program. Students in Patient-Doctor I, Patient-Doctor II and third-year students during their clinical rotations are taught to take a nutrition history, evaluate nutritional status by physical diagnosis, and obtain appropriate lab tests to diagnose malnutrition. They are reminded of the nutritional basis for chronic diseases (adult onset diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and cancer) and the importance of good nutrition in its prevention. To view the current programs for medical school education, please see the Nutrition in Medicine website.

An increasing number of senior selectives, electives and advanced biomedical science courses have been added to the curriculum of those fourth year students wishing to obtain an in-depth experience in specific nutritional problems - obesity, diabetes, inborn errors in metabolism, genetics and surgical bionutrition (Insulin Resistance Syndrome (Syndrome X), AIDS, transplantation, critical care and hospital nutrition. Future plans include obesity and cancer themes throughout the four years of medical school and the addition of academic nutritionists to the four medical school societies to reinforce the importance of nutrition in medical education.

Harvard College Undergraduate

A major effort has begun to provide Harvard undergraduate courses/seminars on healthy nutrition practices, international nutrition and nutrition research opportunities.  Dr. Kristy Hendricks, Associate Professor of Nutrition, Tufts University School of Medicine, and a Lecturer at the Harvard Medical School, will organize and supervise these efforts in conjunction with Dr. Clifford Lo. It is anticipated that these initiatives will make undergraduates more aware of healthy nutrition and may stimulate them to enter a career in medicine and nutrition research.

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Updated 1/25/2015