Late night thoughts #6

by reestheskin on 09/05/2019

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Late night thoughts on medical education #6: Structures

In the previous post in this series (Late night thoughts #5: Foundations) I wrote about the content or material of medical education, hinting at some of the foundational problems (pardon the meta). We have problems distinguishing between knowledge that is essential for some particular domain of medical practice, and knowledge that is genuinely foundational. The latter is largely speciality independent, less immediate than essential knowledge, and is rightly situated within the university. The expertise necessary to teach foundational knowledge lies within universities.

What I have not made explicit so far in this essay is also important. The best place to learn much essential knowledge is within the hospital, and during a genuine apprenticeship. There are various ways we can hone a meaningful definition or description of apprenticeship but key is that you are an employee, that you get paid, and you are useful to your employer. Our current structures do not meet any of these criteria.

How we got here

Kenneth Calman in the introduction to his book ‘Medical Education’ points out that medical education varies enormously between countries, and that there is little evidence showing the superiority of any particular form or system of organisation. It is one of the facts that encourages scepticism about any particular form, and furthermore — especially in the UK — leads to questioning about the exorbitant costs of medical education. It also provides some support for the aphorism that most medical students turn into excellent doctors despite the best attempts of their medical schools.

Across Europe there have been two main models of clinical training (I am referring to undergraduate medical student training, not graduate / junior doctor training). One model relies on large lectures with occasional clinical demonstrations, whereas the UK system — more particularly the traditional English system — relies on ‘ clerkships’ on the wards.

At Newcastle when I was a junior doctor we used to receive a handful of German medical students who studied with us for a year. They were astonished to find that the ‘real clinical material’ was available for them to learn from, with few barriers. They could go and see patients at any time, the patients were willing, and — key point— the clinical material was germane to what they wanted to learn. The shock of discovering this veritable sweetshop put some of our students to shame.

The English (and now UK) system reflects the original guiding influence of the teaching hospitals that were, as the name suggests, hospitals where teaching took place. These hospitals for good and bad were proud of their arms length relationship with the universities and medical schools. The signature pedagogy was the same as for junior doctors. These doctors were paid (poorly), were essential (the place collapsed if they were ill), and of course they were employees. Such doctors learned by doing, supplemented by private study using textbooks, or informal teaching provide locally within the hospital or via the ‘Colleges’ or other medical organisations. Whatever the fees, most learning was within a not-for-profit culture.

 Scale and specialisation

It was natural to imagine or pretend that what worked at the postgraduate level would work at the undergraduate level, too. After all, until the 1950s, medical education for most doctors ended at graduation where, as the phrase goes, a surgeon with his bag full of instruments ventured forth to the four corners of the world.

This system may have worked well at one stage, but I think it fair to say it has been failing for nearer a century than half a century. At present, it is not a system of education that should be accepted. There are two reasons for this.

First, medicine has (rightly) splintered into multiple domains of practice. Most of the advances we have seen over the last century in clinical medicine reflect specialisation, specialisation as a response to the growth of explicit knowledge, and the realisation that high level performance in any craft relies not solely on initial certification, but daily practice (as in the ‘practice of medicine’). Second, what might have worked well when students and teachers were members of one small community, fails within the modern environment. As one physician at Harvard / Mass General Hospital commented a few years back in the New England Journal of Medicine: things started to go awry when the staff and students no longer ate lunch together.

Unpicking the ‘how’ of what has happened (rather than the ‘why’ which is, I think obvious), I will leave to the next post. But here is a warning. I first came across the word meliorism in Peter Medawar’s writing. How could it not be so, I naively thought? But of course, historians or political scientists would lecture me otherwise. It is possible for human affairs to get worse, even when all the humans are ‘good’ or at least have good intentions. The dismal science sees reality even more clearly: we need to only rely on institutions that we have designed to work well — even with bad actors.