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Vermont med school brings doctors to Danbury

December 29, 2018

DANBURY - It’s the biggest transition most medical students will ever make - the year they leave the classroom for their hospital rotations - but Harris Syed seems to be adapting to the 12-hour days, and the 80-hour work week.

“The days are long, but the year is short,” says Syed, 26, a third-year student from the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, who arrived here in March to complete the clinical part of his medical education at the Western Connecticut Health Network branch campus. “But it really does feel like a long time ago.”

For Syed and his classmates from Vermont, who see the Western Connecticut Health Network’s hospitals in Danbury, Norwalk and New Milford as their proving ground, the big adjustment year coincides with a time of growth for the emerging medical school campus here, which was approved by the state Office of Higher Education less than two years ago.

“Every month we are trying to take on more of what constitutes the whole third year at the University of Vermont,” says Dr. Jonathan Rosen, the health network’s director of undergraduate medical education and a dean at Larner College of Medicine, who oversees the Connecticut branch campus. “Starting in March of 2020, we will have concluded that transition, so instead of having just a handful of students who elect to spend their whole third and fourth year here, we will have 35 students dedicated to living in this area and completing their clinical education here.”

If it seems complicated that a local health network is coordinating the important clinical portion of a degree program for a medical college 290 miles away in Vermont, perhaps it is. But it is not unusual.

Across the country, scores of medical colleges have formal connections to teaching hospitals, where students such as Syed get experience treating patients in the major specialties of medicine by joining physician teams in hospitals.

The idea to establish a WCHN branch campus was appealing to the University of Vermont because the mix of people in western Connecticut is so much more diverse economically and ethnically than in Burlington, Vt. - a city of 42,000 where 87 percent of the population is white.

“You don’t want to be exposed to just this narrow kind of group,” said Syed, who wants to practice family sports medicine. “You want the broadest experience possible so that when you go into practice and you are responsible for yourself, you can lean back on your experience and say, ‘This is how it went this time, this is how I want to adjust it to make it better the next time.’”

Rosen agrees.

“Fairfield County is a place of tremendous wealth and access at one extreme, at the other extreme in Norwalk and Danbury, you have people at the opposite end of the social spectrum,” Rosen said. “Fairfield County has the complete range of the way people interact with the health care system.”

Green Mountain State of mind

Even before the Connecticut campus was approved by the state government in 2017, the Vermont medical college had been sending students to Danbury Hospital and other network sites for rotations on an informal basis.

When the medical college was looking for a formal arrangement with a teaching hospital, the Western Connecticut Health Network was the only one in Connecticut that had enough open slots for a class of students.

And what was in the deal for the health network?

Aside from the research synergy that collaboration between medical colleges and teaching hospitals produce, there is a shortage of general practitioners in Connecticut and across the country.

Since Vermont graduates more primary health care practitioners than other schools, WCHN’s hope is to become a farm system for in-demand doctors.

The growth of the branch campus at WCHN is coming at the same time as a merger with a similarly sized health network in New York, which would create a $4 billion medical system stretching from Long Island Sound to the Hudson River.

“Hopefully students like Harris will stay as a practitioner in the community after graduation,” said Andrea Rynn, a WCHN spokeswoman.

It’s certainly a possibility. One of the reasons Syed chose to do his clinical work in Connecticut is he grew up 65 miles away in New Milford, N.J., he said.

Syed’s interest in medicine stems from his aptitude for the sciences and the example of his mother, who is a pediatrician. As such, he says he understands there is more to medicine than understanding disease processes.

One of the most important things he is learning in Danbury, he said, is bedside manner.

“I can have a conversation with another doctor about a disease to understand the physiology behind it, but when I get to the bedside, the patient might not be interested in that, and might just want to feel better,” Syed said. “We need to come across the right way and make sure we have the patient’s best interest at heart.”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342

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