Practice of Medicine Population Health Course

The Stanford Practice of Medicine Program is a series of required courses designed to introduce all early-year medical students to a breadth of topics that extend beyond the clinical realm, such as biomedical ethics, epidemiology and biostatistics, health policy, information literacy, nutrition principles, population health, and psychiatry.

The impact of social, cultural, political, and economic determinants on increased morbidity and

premature mortality are well documented in the scientific literature. However, there are limited opportunities to teach medical students how to consider a patient’s health status in this context and how to respond. The Population Health course of the Practice of Medicine Program is therefore intended to address this.

Students enroll in seven Population Health course sessions fall quarter.  The Curriculum begins with an overview of foundational concepts and frameworks such as structural determinants of health, health equity, levels of prevention (primary, secondary, tertiary) and unconscious bias. Subsequent sessions center on contemporary health topics that appeal to students like gun control, the opioid epidemic, or the public health response to emerging outbreaks, and cover these issues from a population health perspective. Through a combination of guest lectures, in-class activities, group discussions, and homework assignments, students master content, practice skills, and understand how to apply what they’re learning to their medical education and their future careers.

An excerpt of a sample syllabus is below:


Topic/Session Title

Learning Objectives


Foundations in Population Health

  1. Define population health.
  2. Distinguish between health equality and health equity (and why equity is important).
  3. Define primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention and provide examples of each.
  4. Understand the provider’s role in addressing population health issues.


Population Health in Emergency and Under-resourced Settings

  1. Discuss how population-level  determinants  (structural,  social, economic, cultural) impact the health outcomes of
  2. individuals and groups, especially in emergency  and limited-resource  settings.


The Role of Community Partnerships

  1. Describe the demographic composition of, health disparities facing, and health-related resources available within the local community.
  2. Explain the spectrum of
  3. community engagement (from outreach to shared leadership) and how strategies that incorporate CE principles along the spectrum can improve the health of communities and reduce health disparities.
  4. Acknowledge the value of community-based partnerships that involve the role of a clinician.


Analyzing Public Health Data

  1. Practice locating and interpreting both qualitative and quantitative health outcomes data to assess the health status of a population.
  2. Identify possible upstream causes of the health outcomes data.
  3. Contextualize county-level data within broader national and global health trends.


Clinician Advocacy

  1. Define advocacy.
  2. Describe advocacy strategies that help improve health at a population level.
  3. Define and discuss the clinician’s public roles and professional obligations with respect to advocating for health.
  4. Practice an advocacy strategy (such as social media or political participation).


Understanding Public Health Systems in the US

  1. Learn about the structure of and breadth of services and resources provided by the public health department.
  2. Understand the role of clinicians in public safety and prevention of disease.
  3. Examine a public health case and then identify the role/response of a clinician.


Perspectives in Population Health

  1. Describe the roles of diverse stakeholders in understanding and addressing complex health concerns.



Teaching Team

Latha Palaniappan is the faculty director of the Population Health course of the Practice of Medicine Program. To this position she brings her wealth of clinical and research experiences and her passion for preparing the next generation of practitioners who will be empathetic to the complex needs of their diverse patients.

Dr. Palaniappan is supported by course coordinator, Nell Curran, who is the Education and Community Coordinator at the Stanford Office of Community Engagement (OCE) in the Center for Population Health Sciences (PHS).  Nell contributes to Population Health course content development, delivery, evaluation, and administration.  In addition, at OCE, she manages the Valley Fellowship and co-directs the Community Health Advocacy Program, which are opportunities for medical and undergraduate students to conduct research or service projects in collaboration with local clinics and community-based organizations. Nell is driven to address issues of health equity through her mentorship of students and leadership in courses and programs.

Every year the Population Health course also hires a medical student teaching assistant, who was previously enrolled in the course and demonstrated content knowledge, enthusiasm, and leadership.

Additional Enrichment Opportunities

Enrichment opportunities are also available for students outside of the scheduled Population Health course sessions.

Student-Speaker Lunch Series

In fall 2018 the Population Health instructional team launched a student-speaker lunch series.  Select students joined invited guest speakers for pre-session lunches where they discussed their shared interests in the population health topics, sought or provided career advice, and networked.  Students remarked on this exceptional opportunity to connect with leaders in the field.  Guests appreciated gaining perspective from future professionals and valued the mentorship opportunity.

Office of Community Engagement and Valley Fellowship

The Stanford Office of Community Engagement in the Center for Population Health Sciences helps connect students to local organizations where they can gain practical experience, and also manages the Valley Fellowship which provides funding for medical students to complete research or service projects in collaboration with such organizations.   

United States of Healthcare

As a complement to the Population Health course, a student-led class titled United States of Healthcare has been developed to provide students the opportunity for more in-depth examination of a variety of population health topics with emphasis on how socioeconomic, geographic, historical, cultural, and other factors contribute to health disparities, and how such disparities are localized to regions across this country.  Topics have included refugee and immigrant health, native health, mental health, women’s health and reproductive rights, homeless health, and Medicare and the health insurance gap.  This class aims to illustrate how community- and state-level discrepancies affect individual experiences and the role healthcare providers can play in making healthcare more equitable and accessible to all.   

The class was originally inspired by students in the wake of the 2016 presidential election when regional differences in politics and culture became especially pronounced and their impact on healthcare became especially clear.  Students created the class as a way to convene likeminded peers to learn about important issues and identify how they could address them. The class continues to be organized by a group of student leaders in collaboration with Stanford faculty, local experts, and community members, and takes place weekly during winter quarter (the quarter after Population Health). The class has grown in popularity and is a sustained offering at Stanford.  Students also hope to disseminate this model broadly; at a national conference, the inaugural student leadership team presented the impetus for such a class, methods for developing and delivering materials, and outcomes (see poster below).

Please inquire with Dr. Palaniappan if you are a student interested in coordinating future courses, or if you are a faculty, staff, or community member interested in becoming involved.