The Brookdale Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the largest geriatrics and palliative medicine training program in the United States, has trained one of five such specialists.
For Helen M. Fernandez, MD, named Vice Chair of Education in June 2021, the goal goes beyond simply training outstanding clinicians in the field—it’s about transforming medical education.
The programs championed by Dr. Fernandez advance her broad goals: improving care for patients and their families; creating future leaders to affect system-wide change; innovating bold initiatives to meet the evolving needs of an aging population; and developing new educational approaches to teach this field of study throughout the continuum of medical education and training.
In order to achieve these objectives, Dr. Fernandez plans to increase the number of faculty educators, integrate geriatrics and palliative care skills across all four years of medical school, and create areas of concentration for medical students in geriatrics and palliative care. She also plans to institute mentorship for medical students, create a center for leadership training in geriatrics and palliative care, and create new combined fellowship programs.
The Brookdale Department’s approach to teaching geriatrics and palliative medicine is to start training early—beginning with a month-long rotation in geriatrics medicine during medical school and during internal medicine residency training—while also providing the opportunity for mid-career training for practicing physicians interested in expanding their knowledge of integrative care for the older adult population.
As Icahn Mount Sinai undertakes the process of reviewing and updating the medical school curriculum—under the leadership of Rainier P. Soriano, MD, Senior Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs as well as a professor in the Brookdale Department and a long-time colleague and advocate for geriatric and palliative medicine education—Dr. Fernandez will assist in leading the effort to integrate geriatrics and palliative medicine into the course of study and training.
“It’s an opportunity to get into the DNA of medical education,” says Dr. Fernandez, who succeeded Rosanne Leipzig, MD, PhD, an internationally recognized leader in geriatrics. “It’s very exciting to be at the table as the medical school reframes the curriculum and to influence it from day one.”
One of the Brookdale Department’s fellowship tracks is LEAP into Geriatrics Leadership – Learn, Educate, Advocate, and Promote. The objective is to train future leaders in the field of geriatrics to lead hospitals, health systems, and quality improvement programs, and to assume leadership positions with payer organizations.
Typically, within one year of fellowship graduation, 50 percent of the Brookdale Department’s students attain leadership positions; within six years, 100 percent have a leadership role, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by Dr. Fernandez and other researchers at the Brookdale Department and the Geriatrics Research, Education and Clinical Center at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx.
As an advocate for the older population, Dr. Fernandez, the youngest recipient of the 2021 Dennis Jahnigen Memorial Award given by the American Geriatrics Society in recognition of her commitment to building the geriatrics health workforce, seeks to reframe the conversation about aging, beyond medical training. By partnering with community organizations and government entities such as the New York City Department for the Aging, the Brookdale Department strives to influence its approach to the older population.
Messaging is important to Dr. Fernandez, and that means thinking broadly about how to educate the public, from elementary school teachers to legislators, about avoiding stereotypes and creating a more inclusive environment.
“We need to help people understand that older adults have a lot to share with the younger generations,” says Dr. Fernandez. “We need to appreciate what they have to offer and not think of it as ‘us versus them.’”
Helen M. Fernandez, MD
Vice Chair of Education, Department of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine