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The Geisel Experience - Laura Ostapenko

Laura Ostapenko

Being a doctor never entered Laura Ostapenko's mind.

A high school English teacher, she was interested in engaging with her students on a deeper level—talking with them about their values, their goals, the kind of person they wanted to become—but the traditional model of secondary education left little time for her to make those connections.

Disappointed with the limitations inherent in the educational system, and feeling helpless to make meaningful change, she left teaching.

Working as an Outward Bound instructor with a diverse group of people, from adolescents in the juvenile justice system to adults working through various problems, was a transformative experience for Ostapenko.

"I found that I enjoyed the tangible results of helping people work through their physical and mental health issues," she says.

That experience—connecting with people on a deeper level and being part of an unexpected medical emergency situation in a remote area—inspired her to become a physician.

Ostapenko arrived at Geisel with a dual interest in mental health and how healthcare workforce wellness impacts patient outcomes. Relatedly, she was curious about how aspiring physicians handle the pressure and expectations related to their long-held dreams of attending medical school.

It didn't take long for her to notice burnout among her peers.

With her background in education, coupled with a fascination with the educational structure of medical education, Ostapenko wondered if burnout was related to the traditional structure of medical education or to self-imposed expectations.

To find out, she created an Institutional Review Board-approved longitudinal research study to examine burnout rate, which had not been previously studied at Geisel. She discovered the burnout rate at Geisel mimicked the rate at other schools—peaking by the end of the second year.

This led Ostapenko to believe burnout may be related to the structure of medical education.

To leave a place better than you found it is the most important lesson I learned at Dartmouth.

The next step was to see what could be done about it.

At that time, a parallel curriculum redesign project was underway at Geisel in order to better reflect rapidly changing medical advances and to meet the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) mandated changes to medical education. LCME is the accrediting authority for MD degree programs in the United States and Canada.

Ostapenko presented her research findings to faculty during a forum on curriculum reform with a surprising result—a resiliency component focused on student well-being will be integrated into the school's redesigned curriculum.

"This has been a really exciting process for me," Ostapenko happily notes. "Engaging people to move forward to enact change has been a really valuable experience. Thinking about how to motivate change not only in my own life, but in the future of an institution, is important to the work that I want to do," she adds.

Before coming to Geisel, Ostapenko, a quiet, thoughtful woman, didn't think she was someone who could effect real change on a profound level.

"I learned that if you are passionate about something and express your thoughts, there's a lot of support for you to pursue your interests," she says. "There's the feeling that we're all in this together, and if you have an idea for a project that might work, you can find people here to listen to you and who will help you find a way to realize your idea.

"Geisel School of Medicine changed me," she says. "It encouraged me to have bigger dreams."

Ostapenko is on her way to an academic surgery residency at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA, where she'll have an opportunity to continue her research into educational policy.

She sees herself as both a clinician and researcher. "This residency is a good fit for me," she says. "It allows me to pursue what I'm passionate about—one day I'd love to have my work on educational systems and best practices inform us about how we should be educating doctors in the future."

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