Late night thoughts on medical education #5: Foundations
We sought out an examiner who would understand that anatomy was being taught as an educational subject and not simply for the practice of surgery. I thought I had found such a man in an old colleague. I listened while he asked the student to name the successive branches emerging from the abdominal aorta in a cadaver. When we got to the inferior mesenteric he asked what viscera were supplied by that vessel. The student gave a complete and correct answer but did not know the exact amount of the rectum supplied. The examiner asked me what I thought and I said that I thought he was very good, that the only question he had missed was the last one, which in my opinion, was trivial. No, said the anatomist, by no means trivial. You have to know that before you can excis the rectum safely.
My mind still boggles at the thought of a newly graduated doctor undertaking the total excision of the rectum on the faint remembrance of the anatomy he learned as a student.
George Pickering, “Quest for Excellence in Medical Education: A Personal Survey”
When I was a medical student I read this book by Sir George Pickering. It was published in 1978, and I suspect I read it soon after the Newcastle university library acquired it. Why I came across it I do not know, but at the time ‘new volumes’ were placed for a week or two on a shelf adjacent to the entrance, before being assigned their proper home (or ‘final resting place’). It was a way to find things you didn’t know you might enjoy. I liked this book greatly, and have returned it on many occasions. Parts of it are wonderfully dated (and charming), but it remains a wonderful young man’s book written by an old man. Now I am an old man, who read it first as a young man.
Roger Schank summarise the problems of education this way:
There are only two things wrong with the education system:
- What we teach, and
- How we teach it
George Pickering’s quote relates to ‘what we teach’ — or at least what we expect students to know — but in clinical medicine ‘what we teach’ and ‘how we teach’ are intimately bound together. This may be true for much education, but the nature of clinical exposure and tuition in clinical medicine imposes a boundary on what options we can explore. The other limit is the nature of what we expect of graduates. People may think this is a given, but it is not. If you look worldwide, what roles a newly qualified doctor is asked to fill vary enormously (something I discovered when I worked in Vienna).
Here is another quote, this time from the philosopher, Ian Hacking, who has written widely on epistemology, the nature of causality and the basis of statistics (and much else).
Syphilis is signed by the market place where it is caught; the planet Mercury has signed the market place; the metal mercury, which bears the same name, is therefore the cure for syphilis.
Ian Hacking | The Emergence of Probability
Well, of course, this makes absolutely no sense to the modern mind. We simply do not accept the validity of the concept of entities being ‘signed‘ as a legitimate form of evidence. But no doubt medical students of the time would have been taught this stuff. Please note, those priests of Evidence Based Medicine (EBM), that doctors have always practiced Evidence Based Medicine, it is just that opinions on what constitutes evidence change. Hacking adds:
He [Paracelsus] had established medical practice for three centuries. And his colleagues carried on killing patients.
I am using these quotes to make two points. The first, is that there is content that is correct, relevant to some clinical practice and which medical students do not need to know. This may seem so obvious that it is not necessary to say it. But it is necessary to say it. Pickering’s example has lots of modern counterparts. We could say this knowledge is foundational for some medical practice, but foundational is a loaded term, although to be fair I do not know a better one. The problem with ‘foundational’ is that it is widely used by academic rent seekers and future employers. Students must know this, students ‘must’ know X,Y and Z. I once started to keep a list of such demands, but Excel spreadsheets have limits. You know the sort of thing: ethics, resilience, obesity, child abuse, climate change, oral health, team building, management, leadership, research, EBM, professionalism, heuristics and biases etc. Indeed, there is open season on the poor undergraduate, much of which we can lay blame for at the doors of the specialist societies and the General Medical Council (GMC).
My second point, stemming from the second quote, is to remind that much of what we teach or at least ask students to know is wrong. There is a feigned ignorance on this issue, as though people in the past were stupid, whereas we are smart. Yes, anatomy has not changed much, and I am not chucking out all the biochemistry, but pace Hacking, our understanding of the relation between ‘how doctors work’ and ‘what underpins that knowledge’ is opaque. We can — and do — tell lots of ‘just-so’ stories that we think explain clinical behaviour, that have little rational or experimental foundation. Clinicians often hold strong opinions on how they arrive at particularly decisions: there is a lot of data to suggest that whilst you can objectively demonstrate clinical expertise, clinicians often have little insight into how they actually arrive at the (correct) diagnosis (beyond dustbin concepts such as ‘pattern recognition’ or ‘clinical reasoning’).
What is foundational knowledge?
If you are a dermatologist, and you wish to excise a basal cell carcinoma (BCC, a common skin cancer) from the temple, you need to be aware of certain important anatomical structures (specifically the superficial temporal artery, and the temporal branch of the facial nerve). This knowledge is essential for clinical practice. It is simple to demonstrate this: ask any surgeon who operates in this area. Of course, if you are a lower GI surgeon, this knowledge may not be at your finger tips. Looked at the other way, this knowledge is in large part specialty specific (or at least necessary for a subset of all medical specialties). What happens if you damage these structures is important to know, but the level of explanation is not very deep (pardon the pun). If you cut any nerve, you may get a motor or sensory defect, and in this example, you may therefore get a failure in frontalis muscle action.
This knowledge is not foundational because it is local to certain areas of practice, and it does not form the basis or foundation of any higher level concepts (more on this below). The Pickering example, tells us about what a GI surgeon might need to know, but not the dermatologist. Their world views remains unrelated, although the I prefer the view of the latter. There is however another point. We should be very careful about asking medical students to know such things. So what do we expect of them?
I find the example of anatomical knowledge as being essential compelling. But only in terms of particular domains of activity. Now, you may say you want students to know about ‘joints’ in general, and there may well be merit in this (Pickering, I suspect, thought so), but knowing the names of all the bones in the hand or foot is not essential for most doctors. If we move beyond ‘essential’ what is left?
At one time anatomy was both essential and foundational. And I am using the term foundational here to mean those concepts that underpin not just specialty specific medicine, but medicine in the round. A few examples may help.
Whatever branch of medicine you practice, it is hard to do so without some knowledge of pharmacology. How deep you venture , is subject to debate, but we do not think knowing the doses and the drug names in the BNF is the same as knowing some pharmacology.
Another example. I would find it very hard to converse with a dermatologist colleague without a (somewhat) shared view of immunology or carcinogenesis. Every sentence we use to discuss a patient, will refer and make use of concepts that we use to argue and cast light on clinical decisions. If you want to explain to a patient with a squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) who has had an organ transplant why they are at such increased risk of tumours, it is simply not possible to have a meaningful conversation without immunology or carcinogenesis (and in turn, genetics, virology, and histopathology). And for brevity, I am putting to one side, other key domains such as behaviour and behaviour modification, ethics, economics and statistics etc.
To return to my simple anatomical example of the excision of the BCC. The local anatomy is essential knowledge, but it is not foundational. What is foundational is knowing what might happen if you cut any nerve.
Sequencing of learning
Let me try and put the above in the context of how we might think about medical education and medical training.
Foundational knowledge is specialty (and hence career) independent. Its function is to provide the conceptual framework that underpin much clinical practice. This not to say that the exact mix of such knowledge applies to all clinical domains, but we might expect most of it to be familiar to most doctors. But none of it will, years later, have the same day-to-day immediacy of ‘essential knowledge’ — think of my example of the temporal branch of the facial nerve for the dermatologist excising facial tumours on a weekly basis.
In this formulation, the core purpose of undergraduate medical education is to educate students in such knowledge. The purpose is not therefore to produce doctors at graduation who are ‘just not very good doctors’ but graduates who are able to pursue specialty training and make sense of the clinical world around them. The job of a medical school is to produce graduates who can start clinical training in an area of their choice. They are now in a position to — literally — understand the language of the practising doctors that surround them. They are not mini-doctors, but graduates, embarking on a professional career.
By contrast most specialty knowledge is not foundational, but essential for those within that specialty — not medical students. If you learn dermatology, you might come across things that help you learn respiratory medicine or cardiology but to be blunt, not very often. Specialties are not foundational domains of knowledge. You do not need to know dermatology to understand cardiology or vice versa.
Place of learning
The best place to learn the ‘foundations’ are universities. Anatomy, again may be an exception, but if you want to learn immunology, genetics, statistics or psychology you have, I think, no alternative. Hospitals simply cannot provide this.
On the other hand, using Seymour Papert’s metaphor, if you to want learn French you should go to Frenchland, if you want to learn maths, you should go to Mathland and if you want to learn doctoring, you need to go to doctorland. Medical schools are not the place to learn how to find you way around doctorland — how could they be?
NB: I will use the epithet TIJABP, but as subsequent posts will confirm, I am serious.