The Crisis is the Curriculum. Education in the Midst of COVID-19

When I was a young father fretting about whether I was doing all I could to advise and guide my children, a very wise man provided some sage advice. “If there’s one thing I know about young kids, it’s that they don’t listen to much of what you say, but they watch everything you do.” His point was that we teach through example. Our behaviour, the decisions we make and the principles that we rely upon to guide those decisions are what really matter. They are what impress and persist in the memory of learners.  

That advice has withstood the test of time and, I’ve found, extended beyond parenthood to influence my perspectives on medical education. As factual information becomes more widely and easily accessible, medical students have less and less need for didactic teaching, but more and more need to understand how to manage that information and, importantly, how to “live the life” of a practicing physician. How decisions are made. How uncertainty is engaged. How stress and fatigue are managed. They’re watching, and they’re very astute observers.

All this has never been truer than during the current COVID-19 crisis.

The roles and routines of our students have been altered dramatically. In a short period of time, the first and second years have shifted from a curriculum featuring predominantly whole-class presentations, small group learning and regular clinical skills sessions with standardized and volunteer patients, to a remotely delivered curriculum that they’re accessing individually from their homes scattered across the country. Clinical Skills is being “parked”, to be made up when circumstances allow, in a manner not yet determined.

Our final year students have, fortunately, completed their clinical rotations and are also utilizing remote access to complete their curricular requirements. They are on schedule to graduate and enter their residencies July 1, but are facing adjustment and disappointment, with the cancellation of Convocation ceremonies, delay of the MCC Part 1 examination to some future date, no doubt after they start residency, and the uncertainty of what sort of hospital environment they will be engaging.

Perhaps the greatest impact has been on our third year class. About three weeks ago, we had to make the very difficult decision to suspend their clinical placements. This was not because of a lack of perceived value, but because the simple logistics of maintaining safe and educationally viable experiences in the face of the stresses currently being faced by our hospitals and faculty became insurmountable. For them, we are developing a completely original on-line, remotely delivered curriculum intended to provide learning that would normally have been undertaken in conjunction with their clinical placements. By doing so, we hope to be in a better position to complete their training within whatever time remains when clinical placements are eventually resumed.

How has all this been possible? Two simple answers: people and technology.

Our curricular leadership has taken on this unprecedented challenge with great creativity and tenacious dedication. Our newly appointed Assistant Dean Curriculum, Dr. Michelle Gibson, as well as Year Directors Drs. Lindsey Patterson, Andrea Guerin, Heather Murray, Susan Moffatt and Andrea Winthrop have all stepped up despite their own individual obligations at this time to develop and manage this transformation. Assistant Deans Hugh MacDonald (Admissions), Renee Fitzpatrick (Student Affairs) and Cherie Jones (Academic Affairs and Accreditation) have all overseen adjustments in their respective portfolios.

Our administrative staff has managed all this with dedication, a cooperative spirit and good humour. Although working remotely in compliance with university directives, they have managed to maintain excellent working relationships and communication.

All this has largely been made possible through technologic advancements that have been under steady development for the past few years. Zoom technology, in particular, is what makes remote educational delivery possible. Our faculty has engaged this with remarkable alacrity, even the technology-challenged (myself, for example). This past week, I was able to hold a virtual Town Hall with 76 members of the fourth year class, in which I was able to both update them about key issues and hear from them on a variety of topics.

It also makes it possible for our administrative staff to “get together” for daily meetings to ensure the curriculum is being delivered effectively, and all administrative aspects of the program are attended to.

Curricular Coordinators Tara Hartman, Tara Callaghan, Jane Gordon, Vanessa Thomas, Assessment Coordinator Amanda Consack, Educational Developers Theresa Suart, Eleni Katsoulas, Student Affairs Coordinator Erin Meyer, Standardized Patient Manager Eveline Semeniuk, Admissions Team Rachel Bauder and Kristin Baker, Facility Manager Jennifer Saunders, Student Support Assistants Dana Halliday and Jessica Griscti and UG Program Manager Jacqueline Findlay are all managing their areas of responsibility with great skill at this most difficult time. 

What makes the technology possible is the remarkable skill and dedication of our IT support staff, headed by Peter MacNeil.

All this is certainly impressive and worthy of recognition but, it must be recognized, it is far too early to celebrate or claim any victory. This crisis is far from over. In the weeks and months ahead, there will no doubt be new, vexing challenges that come our way. It is nonetheless appropriate to pause and recognize the efforts being made by so many, and to take comfort in the knowledge that we have the capacity and dedication to engage change.  

It’s also appropriate to consider some early lessons that are emerging.

Education continues. Even if there were no formal structures or sessions in place, our students are witnessing a unique event. Their training to date allows them insights they otherwise wouldn’t have. In essence, the crisis itself is the curriculum. They are observing and learning. Much of that learning will relate to how the medical community is engaging the crisis, both collectively and individually. As I was told so many years ago, it’s not what we say but what we do that will persist.

We’re adaptable. Problems that seemed insolvable a short time ago are being solved. Impenetrable barriers are being easily breached. We’re learning to do things we didn’t have either the motivation or inclination to learn previously. And it’s working.

Communication is critical. The need to communicate efficiently and clearly has never been more apparent, or critical. Technology has allowed this to happen and, thankfully, was available when needed.

Opportunities are emerging. Circumstances are causing us to engage issues that have previously been ignored because the solutions seemed too disruptive and risky. We’re now forced to take on those issues by necessity and are beginning, in some cases, to find that those misgivings were preventing us from engaging valuable alternatives. Case in point, the role and electives in medical education will require a re-thinking and re-imagining that’s been long overdue.

And, most importantly…

Medical Students belong in the clinical workplace. All the efforts to maintain formal education remotely are certainly of great value and allow us to ensure our students are progressing in their basic learning, but it does not substitute for active engagement in the workplace. Students themselves, all across the country are coming forward to provide what service they can. They are providing home support for busy clinicians. They are manning phone lines for Public Health. They are collecting valuable equipment for use in hospitals. They’re donating blood to address current shortages. Over and above all this altruistic volunteerism, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are many very useful roles they can play within the clinical workplace. Every medical school in the country is working tirelessly to determine when they can re-enter safely and in a supportive learning environment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem imminent at the time of this writing.

Finally, it must be recognized that the students of today will be the leaders and front-line providers of whatever health care crises face our society in the future. We must not deny them the learning that this crisis provides. By “watching everything we do” and through active involvement, they will emerge better prepared to engage the challenges the future.

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COVID-19: Advice from previous crisis management experience

By Brent D Wolfrom MD CCFP

The following was distributed to the physicians in the Queen’s Department of Family Medicine earlier this week and has since found its way to a broader audience. Please feel free to distribute it you think it will be helpful. The context is based on my experiences as a Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, in particular lessons learned during a couple of tours to Afghanistan:

As we head into this pandemic I thought I would share a few thoughts based on my past experiences with crisis planning and management in prolonged stressful environments involving complex systems and little control. These are completely subjective lessons that helped me cope in prolonged stressful experiences and they may not relate to you. That said, I would have really valued receiving a variant of this email 12-13 years ago.

  1. This event is unlike anything we have lived through before and we all expect it to be drawn out, especially if social distancing does what we hope it will. It is likely that at some point we will all transition from an acute to chronic crisis mentality. This can be a difficult transition because it can feel like defeat. It’s not. It’s us getting better at beating COVID-19.
  2. Plan now for wellness and stick to your plan rigidly, however, also set expectations at a realistic level.
  3. Find supports who will talk about non-COVID, or ideally non-medical, related topics and stay in touch daily, even if just by text or email.
  4. There will be long and dark days ahead and people will all cope differently. A small word of encouragement or appreciation from a colleague will make all the difference.
  5. Support each other. If you have the time or capacity to help someone just do it.
  6. Communication. Communicate with those who need the information and minimize with those who don’t. Be deliberate about your email distributions and who you include on the To vs CC lines. Information overload is going to happen and we need to be deliberate about protecting each other.
  7. Brushup/readup now on the skills you consider outside, but proximal to, your normal scope. We don’t know where we will be needed in the coming weeks.
  8. Remind yourself daily that you are trained to deal with this situation, even if that means lying to yourself a little bit.
  9. Grief doesn’t equal failure. Bad outcomes don’t equal failure. Say those two phrases daily.
  10. There will be many changes and constraints over the coming weeks-months. Sports, clubs, social events, etc that used to recharge you will not be available. Try to find a replacement for each joyful activity you lose.

As a discipline we have just come out of a few recent years of public assaults, difficulty and infighting. Now we are the face of our nation’s defense against this threat. How times change quickly!

Watching our department, and specifically the physician group, come together over this pending crisis has been so encouraging. I truly believe we have a fantastic group and we have a great team supporting us. We will be even stronger and better at the end of all of this.

Dr. Wolfrom is a family physician, former Course Director for our Year 1 Family Medicine course, and currently Postgraduate Program Director for family medicine at Queen’s University. He was previously a full time Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

A version of this post was shared earlier on the CMAJ blog.

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“If I can help somebody”. Two voices challenging our concept of diversity.

You can’t be in a hurry listening to a Mahalia Jackson song. Her voice captures your attention like a moth to a flame. She extends each lyric and note, drawing you irresistibly into the heart of the song. You have to wait for her. You want to wait. You can’t not wait.

Her voice is like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. A refuge from the busy and hectic world, a place where haste is no longer a virtue and we’re reminded of the value of slow, deliberate contemplation and search for deeper meaning in what’s transpiring around us.

One of her songs, in particular, came to mind as I recently read an article about a young man named Logan Boulet. Logan was born in Lethbridge Alberta in 1997, the second child of two teachers who decided to name him for the highest mountain in Canada. He was an active child with many, constantly evolving interests. He loved hockey and more than made up for average size and natural talent with dedication, intensity and commitment to his team. His work ethic bordered on the obsessive. He eventually came to play for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Logan was one of 16 people killed April 6, 2018 when their team bus was struck by a loaded tractor trailer that failed to stop at a highway intersection near Armley, Saskatchewan. His father, who was driving 15 minutes behind the bus, was one of the first on the scene.

Four weeks earlier, Logan had signed his organ donor card. He did so in honour of a former trainer who had died at 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage and been an organ donor. Logan’s heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and corneas have all been successfully transplanted.

When asked a few weeks before by his father why he decided to sign the card, Logan replied:

“If I can help save six people, I’m gonna to do it”

When I read the article, his words stuck with me. In fact, I couldn’t shake it. I’d heard those words before. Turned out it was a Mahalia Jackson song entitled “If I can Help Somebody”.

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Hard to imagine any two human beings whose life experiences were more different. Mahalia Jackson, two generations removed from former slaves, was born in New Orleans in 1911 and lived her childhood in a three room dwelling with 12 other people, including her mother, aunts, siblings and cousins, and the family dog. She was afflicted with congenital genu varum (bowed legs) which would have caused pain and physical limitations but didn’t stop her from dancing for the white ladies for whom her mother and aunt cleaned house. Her childhood was difficult, particularly after her mother died when she was five.  There was no schooling, but there was church and, with it, singing. And how she loved to sing. She was courted by choirs and choirmasters particularly after she moved to Chicago at age 20. She went on to become one of the most celebrated gospel singers of all time, the first to sing at Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. In 1963,  she sang before 250,000 people assembled to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Five  years later, she would sing at his funeral. She was  an important force in the civil rights movement, but also the subject of racial prejudice and herself the target of assassination attempts. Despite all this, she remained hopeful and never embittered. When asked about her choice of gospel music over more popular forms, she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope”.  She is also quoted as saying that she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”.

The particular song that came to mind when I read about Logan goes as follows:    

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Two very different people. Different races, genders, generations, talents, interests, culture, environment. Poster children for our concept of “diversity”. It’s hard to imagine they would ever have had occasion to encounter  each other, even if they weren’t so separated by space and time. And yet, they were linked by a common value and simple, human interest in doing what they could to help people around them. Linked in their values. Linked in their humanity. And so, perhaps not so diverse after all.

Here’s a link to that song. Give it a listen, but don’t be in a hurry.

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Ensuring learners get the point: wrapping up case-based sessions effectively

We often spend a lot of time planning classes, especially case-based small group learning (SGL) sessions. We tailor our sessional learning objectives to the course objectives that have been assigned, selected solid preparatory materials, build great cases and craft meaningful questions for groups to work through.

This makes sense, as the small group learning (SGL) format used in Queen’s UGME program is modeled on Larry Michaelsen’s team-based learning (TBL) instructional strategy that uses the majority of in-class time for decision-based application assignments done in teams.

One comment we often read on course evaluation forms and hear directly from students, however, is that sometimes learners walk away from an SGL session and still aren’t sure what’s important.

Much of the focus in the literature on TBL is on the doing – setting things up, building great cases, asking good questions to foster active learning. There’s not as much written about how to finish well.

Wrapping up your SGL session should be as much a planned part of your teaching as preparing the cases themselves. If you build the time into your teaching plan, you won’t feel like you’re shouting to learners’ backs as they exit the classroom, or cut off as the next instructor arrives. Nor will you find yourself promising to post the “answers” to the cases on Elentra. Sometimes it’s not the answers that are important, but the steps students take to get there.

Wallace, Walker, Braseby and Sweet remind us that the flipped classroom we use for SGL (preparation before class, application in class) is one “where students adopt the role of cognitive apprentice to practice thinking like an expert within the field by applying their knowledge and skills to increasingly challenging problems.” One such challenge is figuring out what the key take-away points are from an SGL session. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to plan your session summary, but then have students take the lead since “the expert’s presence is crucial to intervene at the appropriate times, to resolve misconceptions, or to lead the apprentices through the confusion when they get stuck.”[1]

So, have your own summary slide ready – related to your session objectives – but keep it in reserve. In keeping with the active-learning focus of SGL, save the last 10 minutes of class to have the groups generate the key take-away points, share them, and fill in any gaps from your own list.

Here’s a suggested format:

  1. Prompt the groups to generate their own study list: “Now that we’ve worked through these three cases, what are the four key take away points you have about this type of presentation?”
  2. Give the groups 3-4 minutes to generate their own lists
  3. To debrief the large group, do a round of up four or five groups each adding one item to a study list.
  4. Share your own list – and how it relates to the points the student raised. This is a time to fill in any gaps and clarify what level of application you’ll be using on assessments.
  5. If you’d like, preview an exam question (real or mock): “After these cases, and considering these take-away points, I expect that you could answer an exam question like this one.” This can make the level of application you’re expecting very concrete.

Why take the time to wrap up a session this way? Students often ask (in various ways) what the point is of a session. With clear objectives and good cases, they should also develop the skills to draw those connections themselves. This takes scaffolding from the instructor. As Maryellen Weimer, PhD, writes in Faculty Focus, “Weaning students from their dependence on teachers is a developmental process. Rather than making them do it all on their own, teachers can do some of the work, provide part of the answer, or start with one example and ask them for others. The balance of who’s doing the work gradually shifts, and that gives students a chance to figure out what the teacher is doing and why.”


If you would like assistance preparing any part of your SGL teaching, please get in touch. You can reach me at theresa.suart@queensu.ca


[1] Wallace, M. L., Walker, J. D., Braseby, A. M., & Sweet, M. S. (2014). “Now, what happens during class?” Using team-based learning to optimize the role of expertise within the flipped classroom. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 253-273.

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Residency Match Day: 2020 What our students are experiencing, and how to help them get through it

Anticipation is the title of a memorable Carly Simon song that tends to come to mind this time of year. That’s probably because that simple word nicely describes the prevailing mood of our fourth year class. What they’re anticipating, of course, is the results of the CaRMS match, which will be released March 3rd.  

The process by which learners transition from undergraduate to postgraduate medical education has evolved into a rather jarring and extremely stressful experience (a subject for another blog/rant). It has required them to not simply consider what specialties are best suited to their interests and skills, but engage an application process that requires strategic selection of elective experiences, preparation of voluminous documents, meeting multiple deadlines (twelve, no less), and commitment of personal time and expense to travel and interviewing which, for many, spans the country in the midst of the Canadian winter. And so, as you can easily imagine, there will  not only be anticipation, but also anxiety leading up to the release. 

By approximately 12:00:05 on March 3rd, our students will know which program they’ll be entering next July. For most (hopefully all), the anticipation will end with the exhilaration and satisfaction of having successfully overcome the process. For a few (and hopefully none), it will bring a realization that their efforts to date have not been successful, that this part of their journey is not yet over, and they have to begin again. They will be profoundly disappointed. They will be afraid. They will be confused. They will need the understanding and help of the faculty who are currently supervising their training, and much help from our Student Affairs staff.    

This year, we are again prepared to provide all necessary supports, but there are a few changes to the process which I’d like to clarify for both students and the faculty that will be supervising them that day:

  1. Unlike previous years, our Undergraduate Office will not automatically receive match results the day before the full release. However, students have the option of directing CaRMS to release their results the day before (March 2nd) if they fail to match. They can do so by going into the CaRMS website and providing the appropriate permission.
  • Any unmatched students who have allowed early release will be contacted directly by myself to notify them of the result. This is for three purposes:
    • to arrange for release from clinical duties
    • to allow the student some time to prepare for the release moment the following day when most of their classmates will be hearing positive results
    • to arrange for the student to meet our student counselors who will provide personal support and begin the process for re-application through the second iteration of the residency match. 
  • Unmatched students who did not opt to provide early release will similarly be contacted and offered the same support and services after we get their results on match day.
  • Because we may not have full information in advance, we have decided to release all students from clinical obligations beginning noon on match day, until the following morning.

I’d also like to remind all faculty supervising our fourth year students on or around match day to anticipate that your student will be distracted. Please ensure your student is able to review the results at noon. If you sense he or she is disappointed with the result, please be advised that the student counselors and myself are standing by that day to help any student deal with the situation and provide support.

Fortunately, we have an outstanding Student Affairs team which has been working hard to guide the students through the career exploration and match process, and will be standing by to provide support for match day and beyond.

Dr. Renee Fitzpatrick

Assistant, Student Affairs

fitzpatr@hdh.kari.net

Dr. Erin Beattie, Careers Counselor, ebeattie@queensu.ca

Dr. Josh Lakoff Career Counselor, jml7@queensu.ca
Dr. Mike McMullen, Careers Counselor, Michael.mcmullen@kingstonhsc.ca
Erin Meyer, Assistant to Directors, Student Affairs

The team can be accessed through our Student Affairs office learnerwellness@queensu.ca, or 613-533-6000 x78451. 

Thanks for your consideration, and please feel free to get in touch with myself or any of the Student Affairs Team if you have questions or concerns about Match Day or beyond.

I leave you, and especially our fourth year soon-to-be colleagues, with the lyrics and sounds of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation”:

We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway
And I wonder if I’m really with you now
Or just chasin’ after some finer day

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

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Five ways to ramp up your teaching

It’s February, and despite the recent Family Day holiday, we’re still stuck in the depths of winter. Things are just a little harder to get excited about when it’s bleak, cold and snowy. Add in the task of teaching something that’s become routine, and the doldrums can be nearly certain to set in.

It can be a challenge for experts to teach introductory content. This can be further exacerbated by the cycle of teaching: each year brings another round of the same—or very similar—material. When the key advice of reminding yourself that while this is the hundredth time you’ve taught this, it’s the first time for these learners just isn’t enough, how can you get excited about teaching for the 101st time?

Here are five suggestions to ramp up your enthusiasm and freshen your teaching:

  1. Back to basics: What do you want your learners to know or be able to do when you’re done? Sometimes when teaching becomes routine, we’re in danger of losing focus on the goal. Make a quick list of your key take-away points. If you’re not sure, take some time to reflect and then make any necessary revisions to your teaching plan.
  2. Add some feedback: Add in some formative assessment either partway through your learning event, or partway through your sessions if you are teaching multiple times. This gives you—and them—feedback partway through to make sure things are clear. Formative assessment can be individual or team-based and doesn’t necessarily have marks attached. It can be as simple as an online poll to gauge understanding of a key concept.
  3. Refresh the page: Since the underlying concepts haven’t changed, it’s easy to slip into a rut of repeating yourself. Even if it’s new to this group of learners, you’ll be more engaged if you freshen your cases, or revise the background materials you assign. Is there something in the news or new research that’s timely and on-point?
  4. Toss in technology: It may strike you as gimmicky, but using technology can freshen “old” material. Consider incorporating PollEverywhere’s polling (which you can use for #2 above) or incorporating a short video for discussion. (I can set you up with a PollEverywhere account in about two minutes and teach you how to use it in 5-10 minutes).
  5. Ask for input: Bounce ideas around with colleagues, brainstorm with others teaching in your course. Ask your course director for feedback. If you’re the course director, that conversation can work both ways: ask for input from your team.

Keeping things fresh for yourself can help your learners. Your excitement and enthusiasm contributes to a climate of learning. If you’re looking for more ways to shake things up but you’d like some customized advice, get in touch with the Education Team.

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Why we teach. Why we learn.

What is it that motivates practicing doctors, nurses or any professional health care provider to take time away from their usual duties and obligations in order to teach young people whose goal is to one day replace them? 

In approaching that question, a few things are clear:

It’s not because they have to. There is no obligation or requirement for active doctors or nurses to contribute to the education of student learners.

It’s not because they need ways to fill their time.  There is no shortage of patients in need to fill their days with valuable work.

It’s not for the money. Educational activities are not a route to financial prosperity. In fact, time devoted to teaching is usually at the expense of time that could be spent in much more lucrative clinical work.

It’s not for the glory. Teaching requires most clinicians to move out of their “comfort zone”, engage activities for which they have little specific training or expertise, and subject themselves to criticism from learners who, it must be said, have high standards and expectations.

In fact, many days, it can be hard to find reasons. The day-to-day challenges can dominate attention and sap energy. They can lead to serious questioning and “why bother” attitudes.

And what motivates the students of medicine or nursing? Whether young or old, just entering medical school or in established practice, learning is a continuing, life-long pursuit. Although initially motivated by the need to pass examinations or receive various certifications, most of the learning that occurs through the career of a doctor or nurse is self-motivated and apparent only to themselves.

But then, once in a while, something happens to re-affirm the fundamental value of the medical education process.

Such a moment occurred last weekend in, of all places, a local supermarket. Two of our students, Alexandra Morra (Meds 2021) and Nabil Hawwa (Meds 2022) had just completed a busy day and were going about their grocery shopping when they heard a commotion in another part of the store. Approaching the scene, they came upon a number of people surrounding a man lying on the floor, unresponsive. Mr. Jim Morgan (who has provided us permission to share this story) was also shopping at that store that day. Mr. Morgan had suddenly lost consciousness and fell heavily to the floor. Alex and Nabil had never previously encountered a real-life cardiac arrest but responded instinctively. Relating the incident to me a couple of days later, they recall “zoning in” on the patient and going through their check list. Is he breathing? No. Is there a pulse. No. Start chest compressions. Call for an AED. Get somebody to call 911. Get the AED unpacked and hooked up. In doing all this, they found themselves working with a recent nursing school graduate who was visiting Kingston and was also shopping at that time. The three worked as a team, sharing a mutual understanding of the situation and common training in CPR techniques. There was no panic, no jostling for authority, no arguing. There was simply a common interest and focus on the welfare of this patient. An AED was quickly provided, deployed and a shock delivered with restoration of a rhythm just before paramedics arrived and continued the resuscitation which, we’re all delighted to report, was successful. Mr. Morgan was taken to hospital, stabilized and underwent cardiopulmonary bypass surgery two days later by Dr. Petsikas. Recovering in the CCU a couple of days later, he had opportunity to meet and thank Alex and Nabil, whose efforts and those of the (unfortunately as yet unidentified) nurse who they worked with were no doubt instrumental in his recovery. 

Medical students Alex Morra (L) and Nabil Hawwa (R) with Mr. Jim Morgan. Photo by Saif Elmaghraby

On reflecting on all this with me a few days later, Alex and Nabil remarked on how this incident profoundly altered their perception of the learning process. Suddenly, the long hours of work and effort were no longer merely for personal or academic achievement. Learning now had a purpose. A very real, tangible purpose. It also had a face. They now want more and are re-thinking previous assumptions about career direction.

In fact, I’ve found that students will, at some point in the course of their education and training come to what I’ve come to call the “magic moment” when something happens to make them realize that they’re now able to actually, personally influence someone’s life for the better. For most, it’s something relatively modest that perhaps only they are aware of – an accurate and previously unknown diagnosis, a test ordered that led to key information, a minor procedure well executed, comfort provided to someone in distress. For Alex and Nabil, that moment was quite public and dramatic, but all are significant, provide validation and motivate further learning as can no test result or external accolade. 

I learned of all this initially from Cheryl Pulling, who is a faculty member in the School of Nursing. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Cheryl over the years because of her leadership roles in education. Cheryl is Associate Director of Undergraduate Nursing Programs and so my counterpart in the School of Nursing. In addition to meeting in the context of various committees and interprofessional initiatives, Cheryl and I have an annual “date” at convocation where we have the great privilege of hooding our respective graduates. Cheryl also happens to be Mr. Morgan’s sister. 

Cheryl emailed me last weekend to let me know what had happened. She was communicating because, as a fellow educator, she knew I’d be thrilled to hear of this and proud of our students. Of course, she was absolutely right about that, but she was also expressing the satisfaction we all share in knowing that our efforts are yielding results. In Cheryl’s own words:

“While they are medical students, as a faculty member I am also very proud of them.  I know you would be proud if they were nursing or rehab students. We are a team in the FHS with the same goal of educating HCP for the future.”

How right she is.

And that, my friends, is why we teach.

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Focus groups: what they are and how we use them

By Theresa Suart, Educational Developer & Eleni Katsoulas, Assessment & Evaluation Consultant

Amongst the plethora of student feedback we solicit about our courses, you may wonder why we sometimes add in focus groups. What could be added to the more than a dozen questions on course evaluation and faculty feedback surveys?

The information we gather in student focus groups doesn’t replace the very valuable narrative feedback from course evaluations, rather, it allows us to ask targeted questions, clarify responses and drill down into the data.

Developed from “focused interviews” around the time of the Second World War, focus groups emerged as a key qualitative research tool in the latter half of the 20th century. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist from Columbia University, is hailed as the “father of the focus group.” (He died in 2003 at age 92.)

Merton used focused interviews to gain insight into groups’ responses to text, radio programs and films. Politicians and marketing companies soon seized upon focus groups to gauge voter and consumer trends. The Queen’s UGME Education Team uses focus groups in a targeted way to augment information gleaned from course evaluation feedback, course director’s meetings with academic reps and other feedback tools.

According to a briefing paper from Carnegie Mellon University, focus groups are “particularly effective” for eliciting suggestions for improvement. “They are also much more flexible than surveys or scales because they allow for question clarification and follow-up questions to probe vague or unexpected responses.” It also helps that faculty rate focus groups as “accurate, useful and believable”.

If you’re asked to participate in a focus group, only agree if you think you have something to contribute to the investigator’s project or purpose. (Sure, it’s fun to come for the free food, but be prepared to contribute in a meaningful way).

What you can expect when you take part in a focus group:

  • To be informed if the focus group is for research or curricular innovation (or both). Research studies must have approval from the Research Ethics Board and require specific paperwork to document informed consent. Curricular innovation focus groups are less formal, but will still respect confidentiality of participants. These might not have the same paperwork.
  • The facilitator to set the ground rules, and guide the discussion. Savvy facilitators will do this with a minimum of fuss: they will listen more than they speak. (But you can certainly ask for clarification if you’re not sure of a question).
  • A co-facilitator will likely take notes and monitor any recording equipment used. The co-facilitator may summarize after each question and solicit further input as required.
  • You’ll be asked specific questions, and engage in conversation with the other participants.

What you shouldn’t expect:

  • A venting session. This isn’t the time to just complain. A focus group is looking for constructive feedback and suggested solutions.
  • To always have your say: the facilitator may realize they have reached saturation on a particular question and will move on. This is to respect your time. (You’ll have an opportunity to send additional comments electronically afterwards if you felt there is an important point that was missed).

What you can do to prepare:

  • If the questions are provided in advance (this is best practice but not always possible on tight timelines!) you should take some time to think about them.
  • Be sure you know where the meeting room is, and arrive on time.

What you can do during:

  • Contribute, but make sure you don’t end up dominating the conversation. The facilitator will be looking for a balance of views and contributors.
  • Listen attentively to others and avoid interrupting. The facilitator will make sure everyone has a chance to contribute – you’ll get your turn.

What you can expect from data collected at a focus group:

  • It will be confidential. Different strategies are employed. For example, you may be assigned a number during the focus group and participants asked to refer to people by number (“Participant 2 said…”).
  • In a formal research study, you should be offered an opportunity to review the data transcript after it is prepared. (This is sometimes waived on the consent form, so read carefully so you can have realistic expectations of the investigator).
  • The end product is a summary of the conversation, with any emergent themes identified to answer the research questions.

What you can’t expect:

  • A magic bullet solution to a challenge in a course or class.
  • One hundred percent consensus from all participants – you can agree to disagree.
  • For all outlier opinions to be represented in the final report. These may be omitted from summary reports.

We’re always grateful to our students for donating their time to our various focus group requests throughout the year. These contributions are invaluable.

For course directors: If you think this type of data collection could be useful in your course review and revisions, feel free to get in touch. It’s one of the tools in our qualitative research toolbox and we’re happy to deploy it for you as may be appropriate.

Eleni Katsoulas eleni.katsoulas@queensu.ca

Theresa Suart theresa.suart@queensu.ca

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Why IP?

In 2010, the World Health Organization provided the following definition of Interprofessional Education:

“Interprofessional education occurs when students from two or more professions learn about, from and with each other to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes”

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Just need a large enough room, right? In reality, developing meaningful interprofessional educational events is, to say the very least, highly challenging.

There are a number of reasons for this, some logistical and others attitudinal.

The logistic challenges are formidable. Professional schools have separate and independently developed curricular content and scheduling. Finding common ground and common space within those busy and packed programs is akin trying to get a group of busy commuters to stop and pause as they rush for the train. Moreover, any changes have to be approved by three independent Curriculum Committees, all (very understandably) aware of any impact new programming may have on their overall program. They are also very cognizant of their accreditation responsibilities which require them to ensure “centralized and independent” control of their curricula.

As difficult as these logistic challenges may be, the attitudinal barriers are even more daunting. Many students fail to see the value, being understandably focused on their individual program objectives. Many faculty members, while conceding the value, feel it is something better learned passively within the clinical environment through role modeling, and that valuable dedicated classroom time is best spent delivering what they consider more essential “core content”. These attitudes undermine the commitment that is required to overcome the logistics. In the words of Nilofer Merchant, “Culture trumps strategy, every time”.  (Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2011/03/culture-trumps-strategy-every)  

Certainly, history is littered with partial successes or abject failures. During my tenure, I have personally been involved or witnessed numerous enthusiastic, well-intentioned and carefully thought-out approaches that have not achieved sustained success. This has been the case whether the efforts were local, or at the provincial or national levels.

Most recently, Dr. Leslie Flynn has been chairing a group that has again taken up the formidable challenge of developing a program of interprofessional education for the three schools within the Faculty of Health Sciences (Medicine, Nursing, Rehabilitation Therapy). They have developed an innovative and attractive program of learning events intended to provide both educational relevance to students of all three schools, and an opportunity for them to engage interactively. Their initial program offering begins this week.

Given the rather checkered history and recognized challenges, many might be tempted to ask, “why bother?”

A cogent rationale is provided in the preamble to the description of objectives that constitute the Collaborator competency in the CanMEDS framework:

Collaboration is essential for safe, high-quality, patient-centred care, and involves patients and their families, physicians and other colleagues in the health care professions, community partners, and health system stakeholders.

Collaboration requires relationships based in trust, respect, and shared decision-making among a variety of individuals with complementary skills in multiple settings across the continuum of care. It involves sharing knowledge, perspectives, and responsibilities, and a willingness to learn together. This requires understanding the roles of others, pursuing common goals and outcomes, and managing differences.

(http://www.royalcollege.ca/rcsite/canmeds/framework/canmeds-role-collaborator-e)

The College of Family Physicians takes a very similar position in its “Undergraduate Competencies from a Family Medicine Perspective” document:

As Collaborators, family physicians work with patients, families, healthcare teams, other health professionals, and communities to achieve optimal patient care.

The College of Nurses of Ontario describes the following in Entrance to Practice Competencies for Registered Nurses:

Collaborates with other health care team members to develop health care plans that promote continuity for clients as they receive conventional, social, complementary and alternative health care.  

Physiotherapy Education Accreditation Canada (PEAC) is the organization responsible for accreditation of Rehabilitation Therapy programs in this country. In Essential Competency Profile for Physiotherapists in Canada, an essential Collaborator role is described as follows:

Physiotherapists work collaboratively and effectively to promote interprofessional practice and achieve optimal patient care.interprofessional practice and achieve optimal client care.

It seems then, that we all agree on the concept of Collaboration. But even more significant is the alignment about the “why bother” issue. It’s apparent from these statements that our mutual commitment is based on a shared acceptance of a fundamental truism – that collaboration provides for better patient care. Agreeing to Collaboration conceptually is not enough and, to borrow from Hamlet, “There’s the rub”.  Those noble objectives ring hollow unless followed by deliberate action. That action should consist largely of what we have come to recognize as Interprofessional Education, or “IP”. IP is basically the walk that makes the talk. It actualizes our commitment to promote patient care through collaborative effort of all professionals whose training allows them to positively impact our mutual patients. It requires that we understand what others have to contribute, respect those contributions, and find ways to communicate and work together effectively.

We don’t commit to these efforts simply because they’re “the right thing to do” (although they are), or because fairness demands it (which it does), or because we wish to achieve accreditation standards (which we do). We commit to IP because, first and foremost, it’s in the interests of our patients to do so.

And that should be reason enough.

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Recent lessons in the meaning of Community

What does it mean to be part of a community?

This past week, two widely reported events should cause us to consider the very nature and meaning of “community”.

The first such event, of course, is the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in which all 176 people on board perished, including a large number of Canadian citizens and others with close ties to Canada. Because many were involved in educational programs of various types, the Canadian university community was hard hit. The response was immediate, unified and sincere. Within my own community of undergraduate deans, there was a flurry of emails and texts expressing concern and offering support. Members of the medical student community came forward expressing concern for friends and colleagues across the country. Although some schools were more directly affected than others, all shared in the sense of loss.

Particularly revealing is that the concern and response to this disaster cut through any issues of cultural or religious background. The victims were remembered not as members of any particular group, but as people we came know as individuals, with personal traits and aspirations with which we could all identify. Obvious differences simply didn’t matter.

Later that same week, we learned of the death of Neil Peart, a member of the legendary Canadian rock band Rush and arguably one of the greatest drummers of all time. Although a member of my generation, Mr. Peart’s appeal was not confined to any age group. In fact, it was my children who drew my attention to his virtuosity and expansive lyrics. When news of his death was announced, tributes appeared on social media from diverse sources – everyone from lead singer and drummer of the Foo Fighters Dave Grohl to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Beyond his great talent, Peart was an iconoclast who always engaged life in his own way with an authenticity and integrity that inspired a community of admirers, young and old. From an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015,  “It’s about being your own hero. I set out to never betray the values that a 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.” This spirit was a rallying call that held an ageless appeal.

The very word “community” has meaning beyond its reference to a group of people living in the same location. A deeper meaning, the one that came so vividly to light in the events of this past week is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

Tragic and sad events are an inevitable aspect of the human condition. Physicians and all health providers accept as a professional responsibility the support and assistance of individual patients and their families through such events. We are prepared and trained to do so. But when tragedy impacts the communities in which we live, we share in the loss and struggle together to find meaning.

These two recent events teach us that the concept of community transcends barriers of culture and age and helps us find some such meaning.

They remind us that community is about the forces that bind us in common interest and intent. Community provides unconditional support and strength.

Community occurs when we choose to focus on what we share rather than what separates us.

In the end, community is a choice.

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