Curriculum Innovation: Training the Physician Leaders of the Future

Duke University School of Medicine’s Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program is launching a new Patient FIRST curriculum that provides a transformative learning experience for students which puts the patient at the center of their learning beginning Day 1 of medical school.

Patient FIRST (Foundations, Immersion, Research, Service, Transformation) is designed to better prepare physicians of the future to address the evolving needs of patients and communities by teaching medical students how community health impacts individual health, and how to have effective conversations with patients from diverse backgrounds. 

In academic year 2020-21, first-year medical students participated in a pilot of the new MS1 curriculum, with a full launch of the new MS1 curriculum taking place in Fall 2021. Over the past few years, more than 70 faculty, staff, and students have served on the curriculum innovation committee, which has led development of this new curriculum and will continue to work to implement pilots for MS2, MS3, and MS4 years over the next few years.

What Patient FIRST Focuses On

The M.D. Patient FIRST curriculum teaches biomedical sciences in the context of patient symptoms integrating differential diagnoses, clinical reasoning, and the social context of medicine into a holistic view of the patient's care. Barriers between the biomedical and clinical clerkship years are removed, with intentional vertical integration across the first two years.

The curriculum focuses on developing inquiry and life-long learning necessary for clinical practice. A dedicated research project during the third year—along with a longitudinal curriculum on leadership—equips students to continually advance change in patient care, biomedical science, medical education, health system transformation, and health-oriented public policy. M.D. graduates will become compassionate, highly competent physician leaders who put patients FIRST.

Guiding Principles

  • I​ntegration: within the biomedical sciences, between the biomedical sciences and the clinical sciences 

  • Iteration: providing multiple points of contact with the same content with increasing complexity to promote mastery learning 

  • Inclusion: promoting meaning, connection and community through addressing racism and health care disparities 

Curriculum Innovation Planning By Year

To be a physician, there are things you need to know (knowledge), things you will need to do (skills) and things you need to be (attitudes and character traits). The stage for the first year of medical school (MS1) year is set with a two-week clinical immersion course which introduces clinical skills and professional identity formation. Following that is Foundations of Patient Care, a single integrated course that blends biomedical and clinical sciences to prepare students for clinical practice. Woven throughout, students experience small group sessions with faculty focusing on clinical skills, cultural determinants of health, and leadership. 

In March, the Curriculum Committee approved the new PIONEER curriculum! The PIONEER curriculum wasinspired by lessons learned from our excellent ​Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship (LIC).  We learned the value of longitudinal ambulatory clinical experiences for our LIC students, as well as the values of a cohesive learning community and experiences in health systems science.  We wanted to bring these experiences to all our traditional students to provide for a more equitable access to these amazing resources and opportunities.  We are thrilled that we were able to deliver the new PIONEER curriculum which allows us to meet these goals for all our students. 


Second year will continue with standard block clerkships, with PIONEER providing a new 16-week ambulatory block for more longitudinal ambulatory placements in Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Ob-Gyn, and Neuro.  We will add a new foundational experience in Emergency Medicine, as well as enhanced foundational experiences in Anesthesia.  We will incorporate Radiology training into the Clinical Skills Intensive, which launches students into their clerkship phase, in order to prepare students to integrate imaging into all their clerkships. Discovery sessions will provide students with personal time to explore career interests. We will also include workshops in new areas of medicine, including design thinking, leadership, humanities, and more!


The new curriculum will take effect earliest August 2023.  The current MS1s who have been accepted into the LIC program for their MS2 year starting August 2022 will continue as planned.  The PCLT Program will continue alongside PIONEER as a dedicated four-year program in developing primary care leaders. 

The third year of medical school (MS3) represents a unique opportunity for the student to broaden his or her background in the biomedical and social sciences—the basis of clinical medicine. The primary goals of the third year are: 

  • to develop physician leaders through a rigorous scholarly experience in biomedical-related research;

  • to develop skills for scholarly investigation, pursuit of discovery, and transmission of knowledge to others; and

  • to apply these skills in the pursuit of life-long learning. 

The MS3 research program is dynamic and, along with all components of the M.D. curriculum, is periodically assessed to ensure it is optimally meeting its mission. An MS3 task force is exploring how best to achieve a vision of developing students as academic leaders and change agents. The task force consists of faculty, staff, and students representing a variety of perspectives. Recommendations will be focused on integrating enhancements in alignment with the of the Patient FIRST curriculum. 

  • Expected MS3 Curriculum Innovation Implementation: Beginning Fall 2022 

The fourth year of medical school (MS4) prepares students for their transition to graduate medical education (GME) during residency. As part of a dedication to continuous improvement, the curriculum innovation committee will increase the opportunities in the fourth year to reflect updates to all previous years of medical school. In particular, growth will be directed by changes in the MS2 year as well as recommendations from the Patient FIRST Assessment Taskforce. The goal is to provide the most effective and valuable fourth year learning experiences for our students.

  • Expected MS4 Curriculum Innovation Implementation: Beginning Fall/Spring 2023 

Patient FIRST Curriculum Implementation Timeline

MS1: Full implementation Fall 2021

MS2: Planning pilots in Fall 2022 with fuller implementation in Fall 2023 

MS3: Beginning Fall 2022 

MS4: Beginning Fall/Spring 2023 

New Longitudinal Curricular Experiences

As part of the new Patient FIRST curriculum, new longitudinal curricular experiences will be incorporated through all four years of the students’ medical education, in addition to existing longitudinal experiences.  

New longitudinal curriculum experiences will include a focus on: 

  • Innovation Sciences: This thread seeks to integrate topics that prepare medical students to lead transformations in health care. These concept areas will augment the biomedical and clinical sciences and introduce medical students to skills and ideas equipping them to become leaders in design health, evidence-based clinical medicine, clinical research, basic science research, population health, health systems science,data science as their careers progress. 

  • Interprofessional Education: The Duke Center for Interprofessional Education and Care is developing deliberate opportunities for health professions students in the School of Medicine (Doctor of Medicine, Physician Assistant, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Doctor of Occupational Therapy) and School of Nursing (bachelor, master, and doctoral programs) to engage in learning with, from, and about one another. Foundational coursework during the MS1 year will involve major co-located learning events and longitudinal small group engagement to prepare students for clinical learning on teams during MS2 and MS4. Duke graduates will be collaboration-ready physicians through participation in curricular, clinical, social, and service-learning activities.