A Pitt partnership established this Kazakhstan medical school, which just earned its first MD accreditation

July 3, 2024

Nazarbayev University School of Medicine is home to the only graduate-level MD program in Central Asia.

In Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, there is now a medical school offering a fully accredited four-year medical program with a U.S.-based curriculum, thanks to a longstanding partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. It is the only graduate-level MD program in Central Asia, where students typically go into medical school directly from high school.

The MD program at Nazarbayev University School of Medicine (NUSOM) was awarded full accreditation in April by a regional agency recognized by the World Federation for Medical Education.

“We are absolutely delighted with this achievement,” said Nazarbayev University Dean Massimo Pignatelli, “and we are extremely grateful to the team from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine because they’ve been involved in this project from the beginning as our strategic partner.”

The core Pitt Med team includes Maggie McDonald, associate vice chancellor for academic and global affairs, health sciences; Michael Elnicki, director of medical student assessment and professor in the Department of Medicine; Saleem Khan, associate dean for graduate studies and academic affairs and professor of microbiology and molecular genetics; and Ann E. Thompson, vice dean emerita for the School of Medicine and Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of Critical Care Medicine.

For the past 12 years, Pitt Med has been the strategic partner of Nazarbayev University (NU) as it established its own medical school with the goal of educating physician-scientists to become the Central Asian nation’s next leaders in health care, medical education and biomedical research.

Pitt collaborated with physician-educators from Kazakhstan and around the globe on everything from curriculum development for the medical school, to policies and procedures, to designing teaching facilities, to hiring and training faculty and administrators.

About the Accreditation

The five-year accreditation confirmed that the Doctor of Medicine program of the NU School of Medicine meets rigorous standards of quality and excellence in medical education. The curriculum, faculty qualifications, research opportunities, student support services and clinical facilities were comprehensively evaluated. Accreditation will bring more opportunities for student and faculty recruitment, international research and study exchange.

Getting a school accredited is “a rather rigorous bar,” said Elnicki. It typically takes at least seven years (including three graduating classes) to get an initial three-year accreditation. “Most schools usually don’t have their ducks in a row the first go-round.”

“It is a little bit unusual to receive five years’ accreditation for a new program,” said Pignatelli. “Normally it is three years because they want to monitor the program” and make adjustments as needed.

“A lot of universities have started campuses in other parts of the world, but I think starting a medical school is probably the most challenging,” said Khan. “Because it’s not just education, it has to be linked to clinical practice, and hospital systems and training, so it is much more complicated.”

While other top-tier U.S. universities like Brown, Cornell and Duke have established medical schools in other countries, “there are almost no U.S. health sciences schools working in Central Asia,” said McDonald.

About the Partnership

In 2012, Pitt responded to a request for assistance from Nazarbayev University to establish a medical school. “After a thorough analysis that we took up through the provost and then-Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, we made the decision that we would submit a proposal. We thought, it helps to build our international footprint,” said McDonald, who served with Thompson as co-principal investigators of the project. Pitt was selected.

“What we did, working with another university to create a medical school from scratch, is less common than the model in which the U.S. school makes an investment in creating an [international] entity that it puts its name on, along with another.” 

“We were consultants, and it was their school from the get-go,” said Elnicki.

The collaboration extends beyond medical education programs. At NU’s request, Pitt’s School of Nursing helped establish a professional development program for nurses there, with an RN, an RN to BSN and a four-year BSN degree. UPMC later established the residency training programs for the School of Medicine and its academic medical center—called University Medical Center (UMC)—in Kazakhstan.

Of the partnership, McDonald says, “it was a matter of working in an area that was not resource-poor, but know-how poor, because all of medical education was still on a highly didactic model, not entirely based on current, evidence-based knowledge and care.”

About the School

Nazarbayev University School of Medicine is the first medical school in the Republic of Kazakhstan’s history to offer all its programs in English, following a U.S.-style curriculum. It is also the only institution in Kazakhstan to offer graduate-entry medical education. (The typical model in many parts of the world, including in Kazakhstan, is to go to med school without first earning a bachelor’s degree.)

Because all classes are in English, yet most patients speak Russian or Kazakh, students take a course in translating medical terminology, which can be helpful for faculty, too, many of whom were recruited internationally.

“We trained the first standardized patients in Kazakhstan,” said Elnicki. Conversations are ongoing about the curriculum, which he points out is “not static. They have already made incremental adjustments.”

The School of Medicine welcomed its first class in 2015 and began accepting international students in 2017. Commencement for the Class of 2024—NUSOM's sixth—took place on June 7. Approximately half of the school’s MD graduates will go on to residencies at UMC and other teaching hospitals in Kazakhstan. 

About the Pitt Team

Having written the contracts, statements of work, semiannual reports, policies and procedures...everything needed to bring a new medical school into the world, McDonald refers to herself as the midwife. She is retiring at the end of 2024, but “was determined that I wasn’t doing that until the school was accredited.” Her close collaborator, Ann Thompson, retired at the end of 2023.

McDonald said, “Our wish was that it would get three years. So, the fact that it got five years, I think, speaks to the collective efforts. There have been more than 50 faculty members from Pitt Med involved at some point in the process.”

Elnicki is currently working to establish a certificate in medical education for residents with an interest in teaching, for added expertise in that area. Khan is working on faculty recruitment and research program development. Achieving the accreditation milestone is a feather in the Pitt Med team’s cap.

Other School of Medicine collaborations connect Pittsburgh with China, France, Ghana, Honduras, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, the Philippines and many other nations.