NUTLEY, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine has graduated its first class.

The medical school opened in 2018 with the goal of addressing a doctor shortage in New Jersey.

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CBS2’s Aundrea Cline-Thomas shows us how it hopes it’s different approach to training can create healthier communities.

With its inaugural class, Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine is ushering 18 new doctors into a world already experiencing many firsts.

“No medical students who came before you, or after you, will have your unique experiences,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.

COVID has been the ultimate teacher, from medical breakthroughs to highlighting disparities, and only reinforcing how trusted relationships with patients can have life-saving outcomes.

“Patients are more than what’s in their medical chart. They’re human beings. It’s really important for physicians and all caregivers to really get to know the person,” said Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health.

At the medical school, they call it the “human dimension.” It’s a program that pairs students like George Zhou with patients like Angelina Canfora for monthly check-ins.

“The first thing I told them when they came was that the patient, you need to listen to them,” Canfora said. “Because it’s real to us. It may not be in the book, but it’s real.”

While the students can’t provide medical consultations, it teaches them how other factors like income, life experiences and neighborhoods could impact care.

“Getting that view of someone’s life, it helps you empathize better with people,” Zhou said.

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Centering the training around equity is what Dean Bonita Stanton says sets the medical school apart, but shouldn’t. The goal is to bridge the divide between the skyrocketing cost of care and the declining health of underserved communities.

“We, as the medical profession, and each of us individually, understand what is killing — or at least greatly reducing — the health of vast pockets of our populations. And that was the genesis of our including the human dimension,” Stanton said.

As for Canfora, Zhou convinced her to stop smoking, and even get the COVID vaccine despite her hesitation.

“I don’t volunteer my arms. I’m not a needle person,” she said.

Now she’s looking forward to making an impression on the next class of students.

“When they asked me if I would take on two more students, sure,” she said.

Zhou continues pursuing his career in anesthesiology.

All of the graduates will go on to their residencies at Hackensack Meridian Health’s various hospitals. The goal is to keep them practicing in the state throughout their careers.

Hackensack is New Jersey’s largest health care network.

It’s the first private medial school to open in the state in six decades.

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This post originally appeared on June 7, 2021. 

Aundrea Cline-Thomas