In his 1988 book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, Robert Fulghum takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to education. His intuitively attractive postulate is that early learning is the most durable we will experience, and those fundamental lessons and principles, well established early in life, can be the most valuable contributors to lifelong learning.

I found myself thinking about this recently after reading a “state-of-the-art” article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology entitled “Pathogenesis of Acute Coronary Syndromes” (Crea F, Liuzzo G, JACC 2013;61:1-11). The authors provide a contemporary review of the pathophysiologic underpinnings of ACS, describing a complex interplay of structural, inflammatory, metabolic, hematologic and genetic factors that can be at play and can lead to the various clinical presentations we recognize.

blog12Over the years that I’ve been in practice, the understanding of what causes ACS has evolved in a steady and very gratifying manner. In medical school, the concept of myocardial ischemia my classmates and I engaged was encapsulated by a famous Frank Netter drawing of a businessman with a briefcase clutching his chest leaving a restaurant (presumably having enjoyed a large meal) on a cold day. In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss that image as a rather quaint and simplistic model of what turns out to be a rather complex process.

However, when I think about the fundamental science that underlies the current mechanisms developed in Crea and Liuzzo’s article, I realize how many of those key concepts were first, and very accurately, developed within basic science courses we undertook in our first year. Concepts such as:

• the structure and histology of coronary arteries
• the inflammatory response
• platelet aggregation and thrombosis
• arterial vasospasm
• genetic predisposition to disease
• lipid metabolism
• sympathetic responses to exertion and emotional stress

These topics, esoteric in isolation, have a few, very interesting things in common.
• They are all necessary to understanding current concepts of ACS
• Knowing something about them allows me to appreciate (and even enjoy reading about) contemporary approaches as outlined in the JACC article.
• They were all part of my medical school experience 35 years ago
While I was struggling to learn those concepts, I had no idea they would ever have practical impact on my practice. In fact, my classmates and I were of the very strong opinion that learning these concepts was a decided waste of time that could be better spent seeing patients and learning the “nuts and bolts” of clinical medicine.

Today, undergraduate curriculum committees, including ours, continually struggle with the questions “what should we be teaching” and “what will they need to know”. The desire to ensure the scientific foundations are appropriately presented has to be balanced against current trends to provide more “patient-centred” content, to provide “clinically relevant” content, to ensure our students are introduced to the ever-expanding compendium of clinical knowledge and therapeutics.

But are these forces really at odds? Do we really need to choose between what’s “science” and “clinical”? We don’t, as long as we’re willing to consider new approaches to education. The answer to this apparent dilemma lies in development of integrated learning that doesn’t segregate and marginalize the “science”, but brings it front and centre, linked appropriately and logically to the clinical contexts in which they’re utilized.

Within the next few weeks and months, Dr. Michelle Gibson, Year 1 Director, and Dr. Chris Ward, Course Director for Normal Human Function, are leading a comprehensive review of our objectives in Basic Science. It’s become clear after five years of application that the current framework outlined in our “red book” (Curricular Goals and Competency-based Objectives) merits review and likely revision. In doing so, they will be engaging the faculty at large and will welcome your contributions.

So, do I believe I learned everything I really needed to know in medical school? No. But I certainly didn’t appreciate at the time how useful that learning would prove to be.

Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Associate Dean,
Undergraduate Medical Education