UNC Health Talk

Building up Medical Education in Baghdad

August 19, 2014

This week, as first-year students at the UNC School of Medicine engage in a new and very different curriculum, a delegation of doctors from Iraq’s University of Baghdad are on campus meeting professors, doctors, administrators, and students to learn about how UNC is teaching the next generation of doctors.

The collaboration, which is funded through the International Medical Corps (IMC), aims to enhance the curricula in the 23 medical schools throughout Iraq, starting with the University of Baghdad College of Medicine. Iraq’s education system has already moved to a six-year education model common to European universities, where students begin their medical education at age 18. But Iraqi medical educators turned to UNC to learn how a top American medical school revamped its curriculum to improve an already top-tier institution.

The Iraqi delegation is visiting classrooms to observe UNC’s new curriculum in action, including how UNC professors are integrating basic science with real-life examples of disease states that students will see in the clinic.

“Our curriculum has always been based on the UK model – three years of basic science followed by three years of clinical work,” said Dr. Hilal B. Shawki al Saffar, head of medical education at the University of Baghdad College of Medicine. “But the joint between them is rather weak and therefore the outcome of our medical school graduates were not up to the expectations of the community. We began changing the curriculum four years ago through collaborations with doctors in the UK, and this year it’s in place. We want to build on that story of success with the successes here at the University of North Carolina.”

UNC is building a new Clinical Skills and Patient Simulation Center, where students can use medical simulations to practice what they’ve learned in the classroom. The Iraqi delegation toured the center, still under construction, and learned about the simulation facilities currently in place at UNC.


Much of the week’s visit is dedicated to the nuts and bolts of how to implement a new curriculum, lessons learned at UNC, specifics of educating students, and how to measure the success of the new program of learning. Part of the discussions between Iraqi and UNC doctors focused on UNC’s new use of the so-called “flipped classroom,” where students learn about a subject using various media outside the classroom so that class time can be devoted to applying knowledge and delving deeper into subject matter.

Also, the Iraqi doctors are meeting with representatives of some of the national medical boards that set standards of care for medical specialties.

Julie Byerley, professor of pediatrics and vice chair for education in the pediatrics department, spearheaded the UNC curriculum change and is one of the UNC doctors hosting the Iraqi delegation this week.

“We are very excited to have launched the TEC curriculum (Translational Education at Carolina) with the medical school class that just arrived,” Byerley said. “It’s a student-centered and patient-based curriculum to efficiently prepare our students for the changing healthcare environment. It’s an honor to have international visitors here to observe our work even as we just are getting started.”

The collaboration started informally this past spring when UNC medical students began skyping with medical students in Iraq, discussing everything from classroom topics to career plans.

In May, Cam Enarson, MD, MBA, professor of anesthesiology and vice dean for finance and administration in the UNC School of Medicine, visited University of Baghdad to participate in a conference on innovation in medical education and to discuss the collaboration.

“During my visit to Iraq in May, I had the opportunity to meet with faculty and students from several medical schools in Baghdad, and I was very impressed by their commitment to education and innovation, despite the challenges they face on a daily basis,” Enarson said. “Their medical school’s new curriculum is already serving as a model for other medical schools in Iraq.”

The collaboration between UNC and the University of Baghdad was made possible through a $3-million grant from the U.S. Department of State to the International Medical Corps (IMC), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving health care in countries where care is considered substandard. For decades, medical training in Iraq was widely considered to lack internationally recognized health education standards. The Iraq Ministry of Education is now fully dedicated to implementing more modern approaches to educating students seeking to become doctors.

Most of the grant is being used for travel funds. Despite the fragile state of Iraq, the hope among University of Baghdad and UNC faculty is that further collaborations will improve medical care in Iraq now and in the years to come.

“The conditions in Iraq do affect our normal lives,” said Dr. Hilal. “But we adjust, and we are surviving. We know that anything could happen at any time. But we insist on staying in Iraq to help our people and our country, and that’s why we’re changing our medical school curriculum. That’s the message of this trip to UNC.”

Media Contact: Mark Derewicz, 919-923-0959, mark.derewicz@unchealth.unc