October 08, 2020 9:53 AM

Researcher’s Unique Focus on Medical Education Earns Honor

How one Michigan Medicine researcher’s Fulbright Scholar award will impact future work at Michigan Medicine.

researcher in office talking with colleague at desk
File photo: John Burkhardt, M.D., Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Burkhardt.

Medical research can take many forms. For John Burkhardt, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine and learning health sciences at Michigan Medicine, it means focusing on a rare area of study: medical education.

“My research focuses on the health education process and its outcome on society,” Burkhardt says.

His niche area of focus recently earned him a prestigious grant: a 2021 Fulbright U.S. Scholar award.

According to the Fulbright website, “the Fulbright Scholar program was started by U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright in 1945 and is the most widely recognized and prestigious international exchange program in the world. It has been supported for more than half a century by the American people through an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress and by the people of partner nations. The program selects scholar awardees in the fields of education, culture and science, and actively seeks out individuals of achievement and potential who represent the full diversity of their respective societies.”

“The University of Michigan is in the top 10 institutions for having the most students and faculty Fulbright Scholar awardees,” Burkhardt says. “I’m incredibly honored to be chosen, as Fulbright alumni include Nobel Prize laureates, Pulitzer Prize recipients and heads of government.”

The Michigan Health Lab sat down with Burkhardt to hear more about his work and the scholar program.

You received the Fulbright Scholar award based on your research in medical education. Can you explain a bit more about your work?

Burkhardt: A 10,000 feet view of my work is that my research looks at medical education policy, such as selection processes, curriculum, assessment and evaluation. I also focus on barriers to diversity in medical education and specialties, managing medical school enrollment to get a diverse class, and more.

I try to teach our U-M Medical School students that a diverse workforce influences patient outcomes and our ability to provide the best care for patients. Historically, limitations in the availability and connectivity of learner and patient data has made this relationship hard to directly demonstrate. Our increasingly digital world is removing that barrier. I’m trying to perform research that quantitatively defines that link, and showcases how diversity in the physicians we train can impact patient care.

The Fulbright Scholar program is an international exchange program. Where will you be traveling for your grant and what will you be working on while there?

Burkhardt: My Fulbright award is a three-month appointment in the beginning of 2021 in Dublin, Ireland.

Fulbright Scholars can have different roles depending on the type of grant. My grant is focused on teaching and research, and the title of it is “Comparative Curriculum Design and Assessment for Health Professions Educators.”

Basically what that means is we know the behaviors of medical faculty greatly influence who is chosen to become a physician, how and where the physicians we train choose to practice and how these choices affect care. I’ll be comparing and contrasting two Health Professions Education, or HPE, programs. Our HPE at Michigan Medicine is a competency-based, master’s degree that prepares practicing professionals to become scholarly educators, and I’m one of our faculty leaders of the program. The other is a diploma in HPE at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland that uses their own internal educational methods designed toward their specific faculty needs. I’ll be analyzing the two programs’ designs, curriculum and content, in hopes to create an improved, diverse approach for both programs.

We’re hoping to have my family and parents come visit for a couple of weeks. I traveled as a kid and I think it helped define who I am now. 

What are your personal goals for this opportunity?

Burkhardt: Personally, I think this is a great opportunity to get outside of our health system and see it from the eyes of an outside country. I have benefited from getting my masters and doctor of philosophy degrees outside of the medical arena. That gave me a perspective that is hard to develop if you live in one area of study. It really allows me to ask questions and look at approaches, instead of accepting something because “that’s how we’ve done it for 50 years.”

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I think traveling to Ireland and having people ask me questions, such as “Why do you do it that way?” can provide incredible insight into how we can improve our health education process. I think this will help me come back to Michigan Medicine with new ideas and new ways of challenging my own preconceived notions.

Expanding on that last point, how will this learning opportunity benefit the work you do at Michigan Medicine?

Burkhardt: I’m going to try to bring some of the same inquisitive research I perform at the U-M Medical School to my colleagues in Ireland, and vice versa.

In addition to benefitting the curriculum and program design of our HPE program, I think having these cross-cultural conversations might help me to see my work in a new light because sometimes we just get so ingrained in the day-to-day bustle of life. I think this opportunity will allow me to take the time to be thoughtful and philosophical about medical education research, and to really focus on how we think about education, diversity and equity in a larger space.

My colleague, Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, once referred to me as “an odd bird, but a good bird.” I enjoy that because I’m truly so happy to be at Michigan Medicine; There aren’t a lot of places that support you going into this unique research space.