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Dr. Cory Rohlfsen

Dr. Cory Rohlfsen helped develop UNMC's HEAL track

New curriculum spans departments, closes gaps in residency training

A novel, extracurricular house officer track at UNMC is expanding in 2023 to become the first competency-based, interdisciplinary health educator track in the nation. Health Educators and Academic Leaders (HEAL) was a grass roots initiative that gained traction in 2019 due to increasing interest from residents and fellows to have formalized training in medical education.  

Jon Hall, a fourth-year medical student at the time, inquired with then department of internal medicine residency program director, Dr. James O’Dell, if a clinical educator track would be available to him if he applied to UNMC.  

“He was incredibly supportive of the idea,” said Dr. Hall, now the internal medicine quality and patient safety chief resident. “He connected me with Dr. Cory Rohlfsen and empowered us to steer the creation of a curriculum to meet these needs.”  

As internal medicine chief resident at the time, Dr. Rohlfsen realized HEAL’s potential after reading more about clinical educator tracks.   

“The idea immediately resonated with me,” said Dr. Rohlfsen, now an assistant professor in the division of general internal medicine. “After my chief year, I felt a gap between where I was and where I wanted to be and I didn’t think additional experiences would get me there. I wanted expertise and while UNMC had great mentors and educational culture for modeling best teaching practices, it was missing the structured support that HEAL now offers.” 

Work started with informally surveying the needs and interests of multiple trainees, program directors and esteemed clinical educators across campus. Conversations revealed other colleges were craving this type of training as well and HEAL eventually gained support from the Interprofessional Academy of Educators (IAE) leadership, Dean of the College of Medicine and Assistant Vice Chancellor. Then COVID hit.   

Creating a community of practice

As pandemic restrictions fundamentally changed the way we teach, learn and interact, HEAL was (in many ways) offering an antidote to such isolation – a community of practice. By building this support network for future medical educators in a way that aligns with institutional, program director and learner goals, the first HEAL cohort was launched in 2021 with overwhelming excitement. Since then, over 50 mentors, coaches and seminar leaders have been recruited from five colleges on campus to support the first two cohorts of 26 trainees.  

“One of the coolest things about HEAL is its ability to break silos within GME by way of the shared language of medical education,” said T.J. Welniak, MD, associate professor in the department of emergency medicine. “Participants in HEAL have instant access to mentorship, expertise and collaborative opportunities from across departments and disciplines. It takes a village to cultivate well-rounded educators by way of diverse skillsets and perspectives and HEAL truly embraces this philosophy.” 

With plans for additional expansion in the next academic year, residents and fellows from internal medicine, anesthesia, emergency medicine, psychiatry, neurology, pediatrics, radiology, pathology, general surgery, dermatology, family medicine and PMR will have the opportunity to develop best educational practices while pursuing master’s level credits at UNMC.  

Cultivating the next generation of medical educators

Through self-reflective scaffolding and robust mentorship support, HEAL is designed to prepare young professionals who aspire to be innovative leaders in healthcare education.

“HEAL has given me a foundation in best teaching practices to build upon as I continue my career as a health professions educator,” said Dr. Hall, part of the inaugural HEAL cohort. “It has helped me know that there is a tremendous amount I do not know when it comes to adult learning and education, but it has also helped direct me to resources to close those gaps.”  

The two-year curriculum offers various types of mentorship, coaching video review, interactive workshops, asynchronous on-line coursework and scholarship opportunities as trainees develop a formalized teaching portfolio parallel with their medical training. It also boasts two different tiers, with varying time requirements, to meet the individual needs of its participants. Those who complete the program will earn a professional certificate in medical education.   

“The HEAL program fosters the development of crucial skills that emerging educators and their learners benefit so much from having,” said Ryan Mullane, DO, division of nephrology assistant professor. “The trainees get exposure to a wide variety of topics such as curriculum development, emotional intelligence and ways to maximize teaching opportunities. It is such a wonderful addition to and natural fit within the department of internal medicine and UNMC.” 

Encouraging results and excitement for the future

The inaugural HEAL cohort is now more than halfway through the curriculum and Dr. Rohlfsen said preliminary results are encouraging. HEAL participants cite improved confidence in teaching and giving feedback along with a heightened sense of belonging and wellness. While the downstream effects for medical students and other stakeholders in the clinical learning environment remain to be seen, HEAL is already delivering on its mission of making UNMC a national leader in clinical educator development. 

“Students are looking for ways to enhance their training in medical education and HEAL is bringing them to UNMC,” said Allison Ashford, MD, med-peds residency program director and assistant professor in the division of hospital medicine.

Internal medicine residency program director Tammy Wichman, MD, confirmed that HEAL has benefited the program.

“It helps recruit outstanding residents from across the country who are interested in medical education and academic leadership,” said Dr. Wichman, associate professor in the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine. “I think the participants benefit immensely from early mentoring from fantastic faculty educators.”

The next cohort of applicants will begin applying in January of 2023 and finalized in April of 2023 followed by an annual HEAL orientation and meet and greet next summer.  

“Joining the HEAL track at UNMC was one of the best decisions I have made during my time in residency, and it will be helpful throughout my future career,” said Clayton Oakley, DO, internal medicine ambulatory chief resident. “It has really helped me improve as an educator, communicator and physician.”

Learn more about or apply to HEAL by clicking here. Please reach out to cory.rohlfsen@unmc.edu if you would like to know more or are interested in becoming involved as a HEAL mentor.