Construction is well underway for Wake Forest University School of Medicine's Charlotte campus and Dr. Michele Birch, associate dean for pre-clerkship curriculum - Charlotte, is at the helm of developing and implementing the curriculum to ensure future students achieve excellence. Birch is also overseeing the Charlotte campus’ undergraduate medical education growth and development which includes plans for the building and strategies related to the new medical school campus.Dr. Michele Birch standing in front of a window with her arms crossed

From an early age the importance of education was instilled into Birch thanks to her father, a university vice president, and her mother, an elementary school teacher. An early mentor of hers, who was a family medicine physician, inspired her to think about merging her love of education with medicine. This inspiration resulted in Birch obtaining her teaching certificate and educating students in rural North Carolina through Teach for America prior to her enrollment in medical school at the University of Virginia.

As Birch transcended through her medical career, she became more involved in national organizations dedicated to advancing medical education and heavily involved with curriculum reform, accreditation and advising. Birch’s educational and clinical background have positioned her to be at the forefront of bringing curriculum and educational advancements to life at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Charlotte - the city’s first four-year medical school. Get to know her in her own words.

What is your role at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Charlotte?

My role at the School of Medicine is multi-faceted, which is a true joy. One of my primary roles is to oversee the design, development, implementation and assessment of our Charlotte curriculum as we expand there to a four-year regional medical campus. This curriculum will use a modified Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to teach students through cases that integrate basic sciences learning together with all of the clinical science and health systems science aspects which surround the case.

From Day 1, our PBL-based curriculum, which we are referring to as the Integrated Biomedical Sciences, will use these weekly clinical cases as springboards for student learning through small group facilitated discussions and self-directed learning. Through these cases, our students will learn the foundational sciences of an underlying disease process and the differential diagnoses to consider for a clinical condition, but also all the social determinants of health and structural inequities that may impact that patient’s course.

In addition to learning about these issues within the case, students will have more in-depth community experiences through our health systems science/inclusion, diversity, equity, advocacy, leadership and social justice course and our clinical skills course. For instance, a case where the patient has an adverse health effect due to lack of access to healthy food will be the catalyst that week for a student visit to a “food desert” as well as a community outreach event. This active, integrated small-group PBL model has been shown to be highly effective at developing students’ communication, teamwork, self-directed learning and clinical decision-making skills.

We believe these skills are crucial to developing the physicians of tomorrow as we expand upon the Wake Forest University School of Medicine tradition of excellence in Charlotte.

What curricula are the current third- and fourth-year students in Charlotte learning/experiencing?

Wake Forest University School of Medicine already offers third- and fourth-year students the opportunity to complete their core clerkships in Charlotte at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center. These students experience the same core clerkships here in Charlotte as they do in Winston-Salem. Carolinas Medical Center has been a teaching hospital for over 50 years now and our faculty and residents are used to, and enjoy, our medical students immensely.

Our Charlotte third-year medical students do all of their clinical clerkships here and become immersed in the community, both socially and through research and service. There is great comradery with their Winston-Salem counterparts as we are geographically close enough to foster cross-campus events throughout the year. Our fourth-year students can do rotations at either campus, regardless of their third-year location. We believe this gives our students an advantage in “The Match” as they can get to know faculty at two campuses with additional residency programs and elective opportunities.

A collegial, learner-centered environment is part of our culture in Charlotte, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to come here. Our clerkship directors and leadership teams meet regularly with our Winston-Salem colleagues to ensure that our students are getting the same high-quality patient care training regardless of location.

How will the two medical school campuses in Winston-Salem and Charlotte work together?

From the beginning of this journey, our leadership teams, faculty and students have worked exceptionally well together across campuses. There is not a day that goes by that I am not meeting virtually or in-person with my Winston-Salem colleagues. As “one school, two campuses,” we work constantly to make sure that our curriculum – both now and in the future – is achieving the same excellent outcomes in our learners and in ourselves, regardless of location.

How is the Charlotte campus prepping for its first class of first-year medical students?

It is an exciting time as we have already outlined our weekly learning objectives for the first- and second-year Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte campus students which align with the course objectives in Winston-Salem. We are currently developing all of our cases and the design of additional active learning events, and we’ve hired our first group of core Charlotte foundational science discipline directors and curriculum managers.

Additionally, we have purchased the equipment for our innovative anatomy curriculum and continue to work closely with our building planners regarding the additional equipment needed for our curriculum and for student spaces in the building.

This fall, we will be adding more foundational scientists. We anticipate releasing a call for applications for clinician small-group facilitators and educator positions in early 2024. I have already been approached by many Charlotte-based faculty who are eager to apply.

What will the opportunities look like for students in Charlotte?

The opportunities for our Charlotte students will continue to build upon our strong tradition of medical education and community involvement, but now we have the anticipation of having the students here from Day 1 of their Wake Forest University School of Medicine journey. With all four years here, our research opportunities will continue to grow. We have a medical student research director here arranging both summer and year-round opportunities. Third- and fourth-year medical students here in Charlotte already have their own team of academic and career advisors which will expand, as well as additional wellness and counseling services.

In addition to the active PBL method of learning, Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte campus students will be learning anatomy and radiology through innovative technology with clinical integration. This will involve von Hagens plastinated specimens from Germany, ultrasound devices, augmented reality software and 3-D virtual dissection Toltech Sectra tables.

Plastinated specimens will allow students the opportunities to touch and hold distinct parts of the body – a crucial part to their learning. These specimens come from actual body donors who have provided consent for this process. We were able to examine these specimens through a special demonstration in Winston-Salem in 2021, which was immensely helpful to our decision to move forward with this modality.

Sectra tables are ergonomic workstations that operate like a smart phone – students can use their finger to remove layers of skin and muscle to dissect the body with a virtual knife. This technology also has integrated radiological images with cases to allow students to learn anatomy along with actual clinical cases to directly apply knowledge for patient care.

What would you like for prospective students to know about this new Wake Forest University School of Medicine campus?

Prospective students should know that the Wake Forest University School of Medicine Charlotte campus will achieve the same educational program objectives and attain the same training excellence as their Winston-Salem colleagues, just in a different city and through a PBL methodology with small-group interactive learning in their pre-clerkship phase.

What are the planned facilities going to look like once the building is finalized?

Wake Forest University School of Medicine's Charlotte campus will be the anchor for the new Howard R. Levine Center for Education, a state-of the art building located right in the heart of Uptown Charlotte’s new “The Pearl” innovation district. Similar to Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter, The Pearl will bring together research and development, clinical knowledge and entrepreneurship as part of a larger, mixed-use community, featuring education, retail, apartments, a hotel and an open community space. This will allow students opportunities to interact with all these domains, right on their street.

The Levine Center for Education itself will be interprofessional as it will also house Carolinas College of Health Sciences and have connections to Wake Forest University School of Professional Studies, Wake Forest University School of Business and other educational programs.

Having these collaborative partners located in the building prompted us to design interprofessional simulation training spaces, shared labs and health science learning spaces with innovative technologies, including virtual and extended reality modalities, as well as multi-functional classrooms.

The building is also designed to foster student wellness with communal areas for social interactions, quiet and small group study spaces and ample natural lighting with views overlooking the greenway below.

The groundbreaking for the building occurred in January 2023 and it continues to go up quickly right by the hospital which has been extremely exciting for all of us to watch. The first classes are expected to be held in the Levine Center in 2025.