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July 1, 2013
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Dr. Michael Mahalik (left) talks to Ron Maddox, dean of the College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences, during a ceremony recognizing the first PA classes at the new health sciences facility in May.

Dr. Michael Mahalik's experience key in helping lead Campbell's med school through its early stages


Michael Mahalik’s career in medical education began with the question: Why are some children born with cerebral palsy and others aren’t?

His godson had been born with the condition, and Mahalik thought if he understood what caused it, he could help his godson overcome it.

“I had this altruistic idea that I was going to heal the world,” Mahalik says.

That led Mahalik to the Temple University School of Medicine to earn a Ph.D. in pharmacology and to specialize in teratology, the study of birth defects. As part of his research activities, he became the first scholar in the world to find that cocaine can cause birth defects in pregnant women. He followed that up by looking at the effects of aspartame, or Nutrasweet.

Both of these studies resulted in more than 70 print, radio and TV interviews with the likes of NPR, Time magazine and “60 Minutes.”

But these days, Mahalik doesn’t conduct this kind of research. Rather, over the past two decades, he has helped start five osteopathic medical schools, including the Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine, where he’s the senior associate dean for academic affairs and research. In this role, he’s overseeing curriculum development and helping the school navigate through the accreditation process.

He’s plenty familiar with the accreditation process. He sits on the Bureau of Osteopathic Education, where he has helped write the standards for accreditation. He’s also one of just 12 people in the nation certified to be a consultant on the medical school accreditation process.

Mahalik’s knowledge in the area is why Dr. John Kauffman, founding dean of Campbell’s School of Osteopathic Medicine, reached out to him during the school’s early stages of development.

At the time, Mahalik was the associate dean for biomedical affairs and medical education at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine’s branch campus in Spartanburg, S.C., which opened in 2011. The two initially got to know each other when Kauffman was a student of Mahalik’s at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in the mid-1990s.

Mahalik liked the vision Kauffman laid out for Campbell’s medical school, and a consulting gig evolved into a full-time position.

“I got to see how Campbell operated, and I was impressed,” Mahalik says. “They had very high standards, and we want the same thing — to graduate students with empathy.”

How do you develop a standardized curriculum that does that and also maximizes each student’s ability? This has been the question that Mahalik has immersed himself in since he moved into administration about 20 years ago when he was on the faculty at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

There, he found he had the personality that fits the skills and qualities administrators need. He’s fair, inclusive and decisive, he says. He rose in the ranks from assistant professor to full professor to a dean-level position in just nine years

It was also at PCOM where Mahalik came to embrace osteopathic medicine. Before PCOM, he wasn’t familiar with the profession, but he discovered that it shared similarities with pharmacology. Both take a logical and holistic approach to treating patients. “Drug therapy can do wonderful things when drugs are needed, but a pharmacologist will tell you to avoid drugs until they’re needed,” he says. “Osteopathic medicine looks at the body healing itself and considers alternative ways to approach treatment, too.”

Mahalik also appreciated osteopathic medicine’s emphasis on doctors treating the whole person and relating to patients.

That appreciation came in 1995 when he was in a serious car accident that left him partially paralyzed. In an 18-month span, he had three neurosurgeries. After each one, he had to wear a neck brace for several months around the clock. After one of the surgeries, as his neurosurgeon was giving him directions for wearing the neck brace, Mahalik cut him off: “Now wait a minute. Have you ever worn a neck brace?”

No, the neurosurgeon hadn’t. Mahalik suggested he wear one for a weekend. The neurosurgeon did so and reported back to Mahalik: “Wow. That was awful.”

The neurosurgeon asked Mahalik why he wanted him to wear the neck brace. Mahalik’s answer then reflects what he hopes Campbell’s medical students today will never forget about one of the keys to being an effective doctor: “to experience, even just a little bit, what your patients are going through.”

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