Late night thoughts #7

by reestheskin on 24/05/2019

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Late night thoughts on medical education #7: Carousels

In the previous post I laid out some of the basic structures of the ‘clinical years’ of undergraduate medical degrees. In this post I want to delve a little deeper and highlight how things have gone wrong. I do not imagine it was ever wonderful, but it is certainly possible to argue that things have got a lot worse. I think things are indeed bad.

When I was a medical student in Newcastle in 1976-1982 the structure of the first two clinical years (years 3 and 4) were similar, whereas the final year (year 5) was distinct. The final year was made up of several long attachments — say ten weeks medicine and 10 weeks surgery — and there were no lectures or any demands on your time except that you effectively worked as an unpaid houseman, attached to a firm of two or three consultants. The apprenticeship system could work well during these attachments. The reasons for this partly reflected the fact that all parties had something to gain. Many if not most students chose where they did their attachments (‘if you like fellwalking, choose Carlisle etc), and had an eye on these units as a place to do your house jobs the following year. The consultants also had skin in the game. Instead of relying on interviews, or just exam results, they and all their staff (junior docs, nurses etc) got a chance to see close up what an individual student was like, and they could use this as a basis for appointing their houseperson the following year. If a houseman was away, you acted up, and got paid a small amount for this. At any time if you didn’t turn up, all hell would break out. You were essential to the functioning of the unit. No doubt there was some variation between units and centres, but this is how it was for me. So, for at least half of final year, you were on trial, immersed in learning by doing / learning on the job / workplace learning etc. All the right buzzwords were in place.


As I have said, years 3 and 4 were different from final year, but similar to each other. The mornings would be spent on the ward and the afternoons — apart from Wednesdays — were for lectures. I didn’t like lectures (or at least those sort of lectures) so I skipped them apart from making sure that I collected any handouts which were provided on the first day (see some comments from Henry Miller on lectures below [1]).

The mornings were ‘on the wards’. Four year 3 students might be attached to two 30 bedded wards (one female, one male), and for most of the longer attachments you would be given a patient to go and see, starting at 9:30, breaking for coffee at 10:30 and returning for an hour or more in which one or more of you had to present you findings before visiting the bedside and being taught how to examine the patient. The number of students was small, and there was nowhere to hide, if you didn’t know anything.

For the longer attachments (10 weeks for each of paediatrics, medicine and surgery) this clinical exposure could work well. But the shorter attachments especially in year 4 were a problem, chiefly because you were not there long enough to get to know anybody.

The design problem was of course that the lectures were completely out of synchrony with the clinical attachments. You might be doing surgery in the morning, but listening to lectures on cardiology in the afternoon. Given my lack of love for lectures, I used the afternoons to read about patients I had seen in the morning, and to cover the subject of the afternoon lectures, by reading books.

I don’t want to pretend that all was well. It wasn’t. You might turn up to find that nobody was available to teach you, in which case we would retreat to the nurses canteen to eat the most bacon-rich bacon sandwiches I have ever had the pleasure of meeting (the women in the canteen thought all these young people needed building up with motherly love and food 🙂 ).

The knowledge of what you were supposed to learn was, to say the least, ‘informal’; at worst, anarchic. Some staff were amazingly helpful, but others — how shall I say — not so.

Year 5 envy

In reality, everybody knew that years 3 and 4 were pale imitations of year 5. The students wanted to be in year 5, because year 5 students — or at last most year 5 students — were useful. The problem was that the numbers (students and patients) and the staffing were not available. It was something to get through, but with occasional moments of hope and pleasure. Like going through security at airports: the holiday might be good, but you pay a price.

Present day

The easiest way to summarise what happens now is to provide a snapshot of teaching in my own subject at Edinburgh.

Year 4 (called year 5 now, but the penultimate year of undergraduate medicine) students spend two weeks in dermatology. Each group is made up of 12-15 students. At the beginning of a block of rotations lasting say 18 weeks in total, the students will have 2.5 hours of lectures on dermatology. During the two week dermatology rotation, most teaching will take place in the mornings. On the first morning the students have an orientation session, have to work in groups to answer some questions based on videos they have had to watch along with bespoke reading matter, and then there is an interactive ‘seminar’ going through some of the preparatory work in the videos and text material.

For the rest of the attachment students will attend a daily ‘teaching clinic’, in which they are taught on ‘index’ patients who attend the dermatology outpatients. These patients are selected from those attending the clinic and, if they agree, they pass through to the ‘teaching clinic’. The ‘teacher’ will be a consultant or registrar, and this person is there to teach — not to provide clinical care during this session.

Students will also sit in one ‘normal’ outpatient clinic as a ‘fly on the wall’, and attend one surgical session. At the end of the attachment, there is a quiz in which students attempt to answer questions in small groups of two or three. They also get an opportunity to provide oral feedback as well as anonymous written feedback. Our students rate dermatology highly in comparison with most other disciplines, and our NHS staff are motivated and like teaching.

The problems

When I read through the above it all sounds sort of reasonable, except that…

Students will pass though lots of these individual attachments. Some are four weeks long but many are only 1 or 2 weeks in duration. It is demanding to organise such timetables, and stressful for both students and staff

  • each day a different staff member will teach the students
  • it is unlikely that staff will know the names of most of the students. Students will usually not remember the name of the staff member who taught them in a previous week
  • most teaching is delivered by non-university employed staff. Most of these staff have little detailed knowledge of what students are (now) expected to know. The majority will not be involved in any formal assessments, and reasonably view the teaching as a break from doing clinic after clinic.
  • there is little opportunity to provide meaningful feedback on student performance, or to see student knowledge grow. Students find it easy to ‘hide’, and absenteeism is high and the rate of ‘illness’ seems higher than amongst hospital doctors.
  • teaching the students plays second fiddle to service delivery. The terminology within NHS job plans is telling. When you see a patient it is called ‘direct clinical care (DCC)’. For maybe the remaining 10-20% of your time you have sessions allocated as ‘supporting professional activities (SPA)’. SPA time will include work relating to revalidation, CPD, hospital admin, teaching of registrars, and delivery of undergraduate teaching. Our overseas students pay in excess of 50K per year in fees, and each UK student attracts perhaps 50K from fees and government monies. Teaching undergraduates is merely a ‘supporting activity’ even when 50K is changing hands. Fettes or Winchester might be more careful with their terminology.

My critique is not concerned with the individuals, but the system. It is simply hard to believe that this whole edifice is coherent or designed in the students’ interest. It is, as Flexner described UK medical school teaching a century ago, wonderfully amateur. Pedagogically it makes little sense. Nor in all truthfulness is it enjoyable for many staff or many students. Each two weeks a new batch will arrive and groundhog days begins. Again. And again. And if you believe the figures bandied about for the cost of medical education, the value proposition seems poor. We could do better: we should do better.

[1] Lectures. Henry Miller, who was successively Dean of Medicine and Vice Chancellor at Newcastle described how…

“Afternoon lectures were often avoided in favour of the cinema. The medical school was conveniently placed for at least three large cinemas….in one particularly dull week of lectures we saw the Marx brothers in ‘A Day at the Races’ three times.”