Late night thoughts #9

by reestheskin on 06/06/2019

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Late night thoughts on medical education #9: The Great Schism

Our present pattern of medical education is only one of several that are operating more or less successfully at the present time: good medicine can be taught and practised under widely varying conditions.

Henry Miller. ‘Fifty Years after Flexner’, 1966.

In my last post, I used a familiar Newton quote: ‘the job of science is to cleave nature at the joints’. We can never understand the entirety of the universe, all we can do is to fragment it, in order to make it amenable to experimentation or rational scrutiny. Before you can build anything you have to have taken other familiar things apart. Understanding always does violence to the natural world.

In this series of posts I have already listed some of the many things that confound attempts to improve medical education. But I don’t think we now need just a series of bug fixes. On the contrary, we need radical change — as in a new operating system — but radical change we have had before, and there are plenty of examples that we can use to model what we want. And as I hinted at in my last post, medical exceptionalism (and in truth pride) blind medical educationalists to how other domains of professional life operate. This soul searching about professional schools is not confined to medicine. There are debates taking place about law schools [1] and engineering schools [2], and corresponding debates about the role of the professions in society more generally (have the professions a future — professional work has, but who is going to do it?) [3][4].

Where to wield the scalpel

The conventional medical degree has two components: the preclinical years (which I used to to call the prescientific years, simply because rote learning is so favoured in them); and the clinical years. This divide has been blurred a little, but does not seriously alter my argument — the blurring has in any case been a mistake IMHO. The preclinical years have some similarities with other university courses, for good and bad. The clinical years are simply a mess. They aspire to a model of apprenticeship learning that is impossible to deliver on.

A positive

All is not lost, however. We know we can do some things well. Let me consider the ‘clinical’ first, before moving back to the ‘preclinical’.

Registrar training day in any speciality can work well. We know how to do it. There is a combination of private study, formal courses, and day-to-day supervised and graded practice. Classic apprenticeship. This doesn’t mean it is always done well — it isn’t — but in practice we know how to put it together. Let me use dermatology as an example.

In the UK and a few other countries, you enter dermatology after having done FY (foundation years 1 & 2) and a few years of internal medicine, having passed the MRCP exams along the way (the College tax). I refer to this as pre-dermatology training. At this stage, you compete nationally for training slots in dermatology.

This pre-dermatology training is unnecessary. We know this to be the case because most of the world does not follow this pattern, and seems to manage OK in terms of quality of their dermatologists. (This ‘wasted years’ period was painfully pointed out to me when I started dermatology training in Vienna: ‘you have wasted four years of your life’, I was told. I wasn’t pleased, but they were right and I was wrong)[5]. Why you ask, does the UK persist? Three explanations come to mind. First, the need for cheap labour to staff hospitals. Second, the failure to understand that staff on a training path need to supplement those who provide ‘core service’: much as senior registrars were supernumerary in some parts of the UK at one time. Finally, an inability to realise that we might learn from others.

Providing good apprenticeship training in dermatology is (in theory) very straightforward. Book learning is required, formal courses online can supplement this book learning, and since trainees are grouped in centres, interpersonal learning and discussion is easy to organise. Most importantly, trainees work with consultants, over extended periods of time, who know what they are trying to achieve: the purpose of the apprenticeship is to produce somebody who can replace them in a few years time. You do not need to be deep into educational theory to work well within this sort of environment, indeed you should keep any ‘educationalists’ at arms length.

Where this model does not work well, is in the ‘predermatology’ training. The obvious point is that much of this pre-dermatology work is not necessary and where it is, it should be carried out by those who are embarking on a particular career or by non-training staff (who may or may not be doctors). In the UK, if you have a FY doctor attached to a dermatology ward, they will rotate every few months through a range of specialties, and it is likely that they will have no affinity for most of them. Such jobs are educationally worthless as dermatology is an outpatient specialty. Ironically the only value of such jobs, is for those who have already committed to a career in dermatology. I will return to the all too familiar objections of what I propose in another blog post, but for training in many areas of medicine, including GP, radiology, pathology, psychiatry, what I have said of dermatology, holds.

We could frame my argument in another way. If you cannot hold onto the tenets of apprenticeship learning — extended periods of graded practice under the close supervision of a small group of masters and novices, it is not a training post.

University and the function of medical schools

I am now going to jump to the other end of medical education: what are medical schools for?

Current undergraduate medical education is a hybrid of ‘education’ and ‘training’. Universities can deliver high class education (I said can, not do), but they cannot deliver high class clinical training. They do not have the staff to do it, and they do not own the ‘means of production’. Apprenticeship learning does not work given the number of students, and in any case, teaching of medical students is a low priority for NHS hospitals who have been in a ‘subsistence’ mode for decades. Things will only get worse.

Other professions

Some (but not all) other professional schools or professions organise things differently. A degree may be necessary, but the bond between degree and subsequent training is loose. Unlike medicine, it is not the job of the university to produce somebody who is ‘safe’ and ‘certified’ on the day of graduation.

What I propose is that virtually all the non-foundational learning is shifted into the early years of apprenticeship learning where the individuals are paid employees of the NHS (or other employer). I talked about what foundational learning is in an earlier post, and here I am arguing that it is the foundational learning which universities should deliver. Just as professional service firms, law firms or engineering schools may prefer graduates with particular degrees, they know that they need to train their apprentices in a work environment, an environment in which they are paid (as with all apprenticeships the training salary reflects the market value to the individual of the professional training they receive). What becomes of medical schools?

Schools of health

The corpus of knowledge of the determinants of health and how to promote health, as well as how to diagnose and care for those who are sick is vast. Looked at in financial terms, or numbers of workers, it is a large part of the modern economy, and is of interest way beyond the narrow craft of clinical medicine. The fundamental knowledge underpinning ‘health’ includes sciences and arts. Although modern medicine likes to ride on the coat-tails of science, it is in terms of practice, a professional domain that draws eclectically from a broad scholarship and habits of mind. Medical science has indeed grown, but as a proportion of the domains of knowledge that make up ‘health’ it has shrunk.

Simply put, we might expect many students to study ‘health’, and for the subset of those who want to become doctors we need to think about the domains that are most suitable for ‘practising doctors’. Not all who study ‘health’, will want to be ‘practising doctors’, but of those who do, there may be constraints on what modules they should take. The goal is to produce individuals who can be admitted into a medical apprenticeship when they leave university.

Wrap up

I will write more about ‘health’ in the next post, and contrast it with what we currently teach (and how we teach it). The later part of training (genuine apprenticeship), as in the dermatology example, I would leave alone. But what I am suggesting is that we totally change the demands put on medical schools, and place apprenticeship learning back where it belongs.

[1] Stolker C. Rethinking the Law School. Cambridge University Press; 2014

[2] Goldberg DE, Somerville M, Whitney C. A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education. Threejoy Associates; 2014

[3] Susskind RE. The end of lawyers? : rethinking the nature of legal services. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press; 2010

[4] Susskind R, Susskind D. The Future of the Professions. Oxford University Press, USA; 2015

[5] Rees J. The UK needs office dermatologists. BMJ. 2012;345:35.