Not your Father’s (or Mother’s) Clinical Clerkship

Meds 2015 students get their white coats and begin the contemporary Clinical Clerkship 

This week, the students of Meds 2015 begin the phase of medical education still referred to as the Clinical Clerkship.  Last Friday afternoon, family and friends joined them to celebrate the White Coat Ceremony, a longstanding tradition that marks this important transition.  It was a pleasure to meet many family members, some of whom were physicians who remarked on the changes between their own educational experiences and those of their offspring.


The need to provide supervised learning within the clinical setting has always been regarded as essential to the development of future physicians.  Indeed, early versions of medical education consisted entirely of what could only be termed apprenticeships under the direction of a fully qualified physician who was engaged by the student as their tutor, mentor and assessor.  It was largely as a result of Abraham Flexner’s (pictured) transformational 1911 review of medical education in North America that medical schools were required to provide formal instruction in the basic and medical sciences.  However, Flexner continued to emphasize the critical role of education within the context of clinical service.  flexnerThe role of medical students within service delivery, largely in hospital settings, became consolidated into the discrete role that came to be known as the Clinical Clerkship.  Being a “Clerk” was to have a job or role within the hospital’s complex service delivery.  The role consisted of “clerking” patients (carrying out admission histories and physicals), following the progress of patients through their hospital stay, arranging and following up on investigations, and coordinating discharge and post hospitalization follow-up.  In addition, Clerks had unofficial but widely accepted service delivery roles of their own within hospitals, including phlebotomy, administering intravenous medications, performing simple procedures such as Foley catheter insertion and cast removal, simple suturing and recording electrocardiograms.  Appropriately supervised and monitored, this role provided opportunities to engage patient care in all its complexity in a transitional fashion, leading eventually to the ability to engage patient care independently after graduation.  The service delivery component of the clerkship was eventually recognized as such with the provision of a modest stipend, which continues today.  Interestingly, the role of the Clerk varied very little between services, specialties and differing patient populations, the goal being to develop strong foundational skills in patient assessment and management, which were felt to be consistent and “learnable” within any patient care context.

As the “service” component of the clerkship grew and hospital care became more procedurally driven, understandable concerns were raised regarding the balance between service delivery and education.  Medical educators, buttressed by increasingly specific and prescriptive accreditation standards, developed standards and objectives for the medical student role, coupled with a need for more structured and objective assessment.  At the same time, our students were developing an increasing need to use clerkship experiences to explore career options in an increasingly complex and competitive postgraduate training environment.

Today’s clinical clerkship has evolved considerably from the model experienced by most mid or late career practitioners.  Now usually consisting of the final 2 years of medical school, it is intended to provide clinical exposures that vary not only in focus but also in setting, recognizing the reality that our students have a critical need to explore career options and to encounter patients in a variety of settings that will reflect their own career paths.  The rotations are enhanced with formal educational experiences, formalized feedback on all curricular objectives, and structured assessments of various types.  To illustrate the modern clerkship, the following example profile is provided to illustrate the journey of one medical student through a clerkship:

  • A six week General Surgery rotation on an in-hospital unit at either Kingston General Hospital or our affiliated teaching hospital in Oshawa.
  • A six week Peri-operative Medicine rotation rotating through a series of experiences with surgical subspecialties (such as Plastics, Orthopedics, Urology), Anaesthesia and Emergency Medicine.
  • Six weeks on Core Internal Medicine spent as part of the care team assigned to a Clinical Teaching Unit in Kingston, Oshawa or Peterborough.
  • A further six weeks on Specialty Medicine spent undertaking consultation or out-patient clinics within three medical sub-specialties.
  • Six weeks of Psychiatry in Kingston, Oshawa or Markham, generally office or consultation- based.
  • Six weeks of Family Medicine working with a community family physician or Family Health Team.
  • Six weeks of Pediatrics, provided in either a hospital ward or community practice.
  • Six weeks of Obstetrics and Gynecology, consisting of shifts in Labour and Delivery, gynecology ward, or outpatient clinics.
  • Sixteen weeks of electives, during which the students a series of 2 week experiences in specialty services and locations across Canada designed to broaden their clinical experience and exposure to career options.
  • Three 4 week “Core Curriculum” rotations placed at the beginning, within and at the end of the clinical rotations, intended to provide common instruction and assessment in advanced topics and practice related instruction.

All these rotations feature, in addition to the clinical experiences, structured teaching, all guided by objectives linked to the overall Curricular Goals and Competency Based Objectives document which was developed and is regularly reviewed by our Clerkship Committee and approved by the Curriculum Committee. 

In addition, students can elect to undertake our Integrated Community Clerkship, consisting of an 18 week placement within a smaller community working with community tutors and Family Health Teams, intended to provide longitudinal experiences in Family Medicine, Pediatrics and Psychiatry.

Students can also apply for an increasing number of International exchanges which allow them to undertake a core rotation at universities in another country.

All rotations feature content relevant to the various Professional Competencies (Professionalism, Advocacy, Collaboration, Management) and their achievement in these domains is a component of rotation assessments.

All students continually log their clinical experiences and technical procedures in order to ensure all learning objectives are being met.  They also undertake comprehensive structured clinical examinations (OSCEs) in order to ensure core clinical skills are mastered and maintained.

So…a far cry from the service dominated Clinical Clerkship so familiar to most practicing physicians.  A key, and very reasonable question could be posed: Does it matter?  Are our students better prepared for the demands and rigours of residency and practice than their predecessors?  This intriguing question will be the subject of my next Blog.




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