Dr. Christian Gulbrandsen, instrumental in changing the way University of Hawaii medical students learn, stood up to opponents of the then-controversial methods of “Problem- Based Learning,” a hands-on approach in contrast to the traditional lecture-style curriculum.
“He was very visionary and courageous,” said Dr. Lee Buenconsejo-Lum, who entered the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) in 1990 as a member of only the second PBL class. “It was a very new curriculum, and there was a lot of uncertainty and resistance and naysayers from the larger medical community. … He always encouraged us to trust in the PBL process and keep the faith and that it would turn us into better clinicians.”
Gulbrandsen, retired JABSOM dean and professor emeritus of medicine, died Aug. 8 at age 80 at his Waimea home on Hawaii island. He continued to teach first-year medical students as recently as 2018 as a volunteer in Waimea.
He joined the medical school in 1971, later becoming chairman of medicine. He designed and led the Integrated Medical Residency Program. He also was a board member of the North Hawaii Community Hospital and a founding member of the Kohala Center.
Instead of the traditional lecture-style curriculum, Gulbrandsen introduced Problem-Based Learning to the school, which was among the first of only a handful of PBL schools in 1989.
“This curriculum change was made even in the presence of vociferous condemnations from well-known educational scholars from around the nation,” said Dr. Benjamin Young, former JABSOM dean of students. “Yet over the past three decades, the critics’ voices have fallen silent, and the PBL results have proven him amazingly accurate in producing extremely competent and capable physicians throughout the state of Hawaii.”
Traditional medical school begins with two years of lectures organized by subjects, whereas problem-based learning students take cases of simulated and real patients, unfolding them in a sequence that allows the student to think critically from the very beginning of medical school, said Buenconsejo-Lum, now JABSOM director of Graduate Medical Education.
In her role, she has worked with people from around the country and the world who could see differences in JABSOM-trained students schooled in the PBL curriculum.
“They are more comfortable and confident in working with patients,” she said, adding they are able to integrate and synthesize a lot of information and are able to explain it to patients.
“They mastered that by the time they get to clinical rotations, she said.
Buenconsejo-Lum said the PBL process allows students to learn through cases and repetition, to build on knowledge and gain a deeper understanding, rather than merely studying for a test.
“That’s really the beauty of this type of learning,” she said. Now a great majority of schools are using PBL, at least partially.
Gulbrandsen was key in obtaining funding for the UH medical school’s Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence in 1991, whose goal is to improve the health of Native Hawaiians through research, education, service and training in medicine.
“What is remarkable about Chris Gulbrandsen is that he was a hematologist in private practice, with little experience in medical school administration, when he was tapped to be the dean at JABSOM,” Young said. “The limitations in experience, however, were made up by a tremendous depth of vision.”
He is also remembered as a gifted researcher. While assigned to work as a research associate at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Puerto Rico, he was among the first scientists to identify so-called good cholesterol, while investigating cardiovascular health disparities on the island.
He later completed a hematology fellowship at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he showed the metabolism of lipoproteins VLDL to LDL in squirrel monkeys and in people with a hereditary disorder that interferes with the absorption of fat and fat-soluble vitamins from food.
Gulbrandsen was born Nov. 15, 1938, in Westby, Wis. to a physician and a registered nurse.
He is survived by wife Dorothy and sons Chris and Eric. A private service was held in his memory. The family requests no monetary gifts in his name or flowers.