Healthy Prognosis: Pitt-Nazarbayev Medical School Partnership in Kazakhstan

Issue Date: 
February 15, 2016

In 2012, Nazarbayev University in the Republic of Kazakhstan selected Pitt to guide it in establishing a new medical school. Three years later—in August 2015—the Nazarbayev University School of Medicine (NUSOM) enrolled its inaugural class of 20 students. Now, the partnership is well under way—and expectations are high for the new medical school’s impact on the Central Asian region.

Pitt’s medical school helped to design and prepare the NUSOM curriculum. The school’s students, most of whom completed their undergraduate degrees at Nazarbayev, are taught in English by faculty recruited from Kazakhstan and globally—and Pitt-style research training is being woven into the four-year NUSOM medical-degree program.

The curriculum represents an entirely new way of training physicians in the Central Asian Republic, says Margaret McDonald, Pitt’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, health sciences. She has been a member of project development teams for many of Pitt’s global partnerships.  

During NUSOM’s opening ceremony last summer, McDonald addressed in her remarks the education and healthcare transformation Kazakhstan is poised to make—as well as the promise of a new generation of students. “You will become the first generation of physicians to practice a new model of care—one that is founded on evidence-based medicine; one that puts the patient and the patient’s family at the core of all you do; and one that, through research, advances new knowledge that will improve the lives of the patients in your care as well as contribute to the economic development of the republic through technology transfer.”  

NUSOM is not Kazakhstan’s only physician-training institute, but its Pitt-designed curriculum, which blends self-directed learning with more traditional teaching methods, makes it unique in the republic. One of the biggest differences with other Kazakhstan schools is NUSOM’s use of “standardized patients,” or real people coached to present the students with particular medical problems, says Ann Thompson, Pitt medical school vice dean. The process, standard in the U.S. and in most modern medical schools, helps students learn hands-on care, including how to interact with patients, conduct examinations, and take a patient’s medical history. 

The work with NUSOM represents the Pitt School of Medicine’s most ambitious partnership to date, as it continues to pursue opportunities to position itself as a leader in the global health arena. Pitt plans to use the linkage “to gain international experience, knowledge, and recognition for being able to collaborate with other institutions on global medical education,” Thompson says. 

She adds that, “some of the lessons learned from working with Nazarbayev can improve our own curriculum and help us maintain our excellence for the next generation of U.S. doctors.”

The Republic of Kazakhstan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is the world’s ninth-largest nation in land mass. Its population of 18 million comprises about 100 different ethnic groups, of which Russians and Kazakhs are dominant. Its population is scattered across the vast country, so reaching the sick poses one of the greatest challenges for healthcare delivery in the republic.

“To better educate the students and support the faculty,” McDonald adds, “we are learning everything we can about the country, the resources that are available to support healthcare delivery, and about diseases in the region that can pose the greatest problems.” 

With its inaugural class under way, it will take time for the new medical school to build a critical mass of physicians to serve those areas with greatest need. Until then, the Pitt-Nazarbayev team is exploring how to train and use other providers, including nurses, to extend the reach of health care delivery to patients in remote places. Using telemedicine, Thompson says, may also be a good fit for the region.  

Expectations at NUSOM are high and plans are advancing for training physician-scientists who will lead in health care, medical education, and in research. 

That future looks bright, Thompson says. 

“With each Pitt team visit to the medical school to plan and advise, members come back impressed at how great a job is being done and how very capable and motivated the students are. The partnership has been a great pleasure for us.”