Leaders in Medical Education

Dr. Caren M. Stalburg, Chief of the Division of Professional Education in the Department of Learning Health Sciences

Osmosis Team
Published on Jul 13, 2016. Updated on Invalid date.

Caren M. Stalburg, M.D., M.A., has a long-standing involvement with health professions education at the University of Michigan. After completing medical school at the University of Michigan in 1992, she completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1996 and has been on faculty since. She is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Learning Health Sciences. She serves as the Chief of the Division of Professional Education in the Department of Learning Health Sciences and maintains a busy clinical practice in general obstetrics and gynecology at the West Ann Arbor Health Center. In 2015, she was awarded one of the Inaugural Academic Innovation Fellowships from the Office of Digital Education and Innovation at the University of Michigan in recognition of her initial work in the Coursera massive open online course environment.

Dr. Stalburg also serves on a number of hospital and university committees and boards. Nationally, she serves on a variety of committees for the National Board of Medical Examiners, is on the Executive Board of the Central Group on Educational Affairs, and participates as a member of the Society of Directors of Research in Medical Education.

How did you decide on a career in medicine?
Oddly enough, I thought that there were only three professions out there in the world: medicine, law, or business! I am terrible at math, and while good at forming an argument I dislike writing papers, so that left medicine (at least in my 18 year old mind). Honestly though, I recognized that for whatever reason, the sciences of biology and chemistry made easy sense to me, and while challenging, I never felt overwhelmed by them, say like I did with multiplying matrices. I also love people, and as corny as it sounds, I really liked the idea that I could combine my ease with science and the opportunity to ‘do good’ for others.

What were a few key steps in your journey from an aspiring medical student to your current position as Chief of the Division of Professional Education in the Department of Learning Health Sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School?
I initially chose Ob/Gyn as a career path because of the incredible combination of surgery and primary care, as well as the opportunity to have long-term relationships with patients and their families. I also wanted to know that I could make a difference by finding a problem and potentially fixing it for people either with surgery or medication. And, of course, pregnancy always has a resolution, most often a happy one!

As a junior faculty member you ‘inherit’ the opportunity to be on a number of committees. I found myself on a curriculum development committee with PhD educators and recognized that there is a science to education, and that as an MD, I didn’t have that foundational knowledge. So, I decided to go back to school and earned a Master of Arts in Higher Education from the School of Education at the University of Michigan. This allowed me to begin to take a more scholarly approach to curriculum development, teaching, assessment and evaluation, and student development.

When the University of Michigan partnered with Coursera, an opportunity arose to create content in an open resourced on-line environment. I knew that not everyone could obtain an advanced degree in education, but most would want to learn about instructional methods in health professions education. So, I spent a summer developing and producing a course for health care providers around the world, in whatever domain/context they might find themselves. That course has been going strong now since 2014.

As the Department of Medical Education at the University of Michigan Medical School transitioned to the Department of Learning Health Sciences, the opportunity arose to think about learning at scale within healthcare focused on individuals and teams as well as larger entities like hospitals, and regional and global health care systems.

What is the greatest difference between the clinical side of medicine and the administrative side?
In all honesty, I think that the skills required in each are just variations on a theme. Each requires you to work hard in the service of others, listen and ask questions, attend to lots of documentation, support and encourage others on your team, and be diligent and organized. The biggest difference really is in how close you are to the ‘work’ of your team. Clinically, one is closely involved with direct patient care and educating learners. Administratively, you sit in the balcony a bit more, making sure that conditions are ripe for everyone else on the stage or in the orchestra to succeed. Both clinical work and administrative activities have the opportunity for problem solving and developing strategies for future activities.

What does an "average" day look like for you?
There really is no “average” day! That is part of the fun. There are certain days of the week that I am providing direct patient care in the office or on labor and delivery, and other days that are more focused on curriculum development, educational research projects, or administrative tasks. There are some days when those two domains meld. And, everyday, I make sure that I keep up with my clinical care activities within our electronic health record system—patient messages, results, phone calls etc.

Oh, and e-mail. Lots and lots of e-mail!

What was/were the most memorable experience(s) during your medical education?
First and foremost were the lifelong connections that I made with colleagues, classmates, and co-residents. I consider many of them my closest friends to this day. I am also keenly aware of the contributions that my attending faculty made to my development as a clinician and as a person. There is a good mix of happy, successful memories as well as ones where traumatic and/or dramatic things happened that cemented principles of excellent patient care into my memory. I can still hear the positive support and pearls of wisdom that my attending physicians shared with me when I was a resident. I often call on that wisdom when I find myself in a diagnostic dilemma or challenge.

What are most the important facets of an undergraduate’s application to medical school from an admissions perspective?
While I don’t serve on our admissions committee, I see our newest learners in their first few years of medical school. Along with the obvious evidence of academic success, it is important to have a unique set of skills and attributes that indicate that someone is genuine, inquisitive, committed, and capable.

How do you foresee medical education changing in the next few years?
There is sure to be a bigger focus on problem solving and situated learning. There is so much information and knowledge that it is impossible now to memorize everything. Individuals will need to develop the habits of mind to develop their own questions, identify their own knowledge gaps and to seek out information and knowledge to help shore up those gaps. It will require more independent study and focus, as well as ready access to on-line educational materials. Paradoxically, medical education will also require more reliance on teams and inter-professional collaborations. While each person will need to develop their own skills and expertise, application of those skills will be within the context of clinical care teams and partnerships. Developing solid communication skills with colleagues and patients, both in real time and via electronic modalities will be critical. I also believe that medical education will truly be life-long and developmental. Each facet of education will be geared towards preparing individuals for the next step on their journey. Medical school will prepare you for supervised practice as a resident. Residencies will provide specialized knowledge for independent practice within a certain area of medicine. And, then once an individual is established within their area of expertise, they will need to continue to learn and maintain their skills. We will all need to be ‘professional students’-always inquisitive and reflecting on our own capabilities.