How do you judge a medical school? Specifically, how do you know if it’s providing an effective educational experience for its students? There’s no shortage of perspectives on that question. Everyone involved in medical education, from first year students to Deans, will happily weigh in. Theories and opinions abound, ranging from the rigorous application of systematic Program Evaluation involving the collection, processing and consideration of multiple pre-determined sources of data, to the “I know it when I see it” approach. Our accrediting agencies certainly favour a data driven approach, now requiring the analysis of twelve standards which break down to 95 elements requiring the collection and reporting of literally hundreds of individual points of information.

I was recently faced with this question, with the added complexity that the medical school was situated in a country with very different political and social structures than our own, and very different challenges to the delivery of health care. The school was in a large (very large) city in China, and I was part of a small team asked to provide perspectives on a recently developed English language program.

The obvious and perhaps easiest approach is to measure it against our established, North American accreditation standards. However, I found many of the standards, particularly those relating to issues such as diversity, admission procedures, faculty appointments and governance, simply did not translate to that cultural context. So, I decided to concentrate instead on the essentials – those elements that are foundational to any medical education process and should retain relevance regardless of social or political context. With that in mind, I concentrated on four “essential ingredients” of medical education.

The first, and most obvious, is students. Medical education is fundamentally about student learning and their personal development as physicians. They therefore need to be capable of learning and, probably more importantly, motivated by a true commitment of service to their future patients and communities. The students I encountered certainly had those attributes. They were very well-qualified academically, highly-motivated, ambitious and adaptable. They also seemed to have high levels of social responsibility and commitment to utilizing their medical training in the interests of their society. They are also all only children which, I came to learn, puts them under considerable pressure to succeed.

Students need to encounter teaching faculty, basic scientists and clinicians committed to the process of passing along their accumulated knowledge, experience and wisdom to the next generation of physicians. Their commitment must be based not simply on conditions of employment or obligations, but an almost instinctive impulse to teach that they see as part of their professional role and personal mission.

In China, I met numerous clinical faculty and curricular leaders during the visit who were uniformly committed to providing education both through formal teaching and in conjunction with their clinical responsibilities. They saw this as an embedded component of their appointments, and felt supported in their roles through provision of faculty development. When pressed, they admit that educational responsibilities are provided “over and above” their clinical or academic roles.

Together, students and teachers must encounter patients. Those patients must be accessible, representative of the conditions and circumstances students will eventually encounter, and be willing to participate in the educational process. In the Chinese school I reviewed, there was virtually unlimited and unfettered access to patients of all types. This is the result of the sheer volume of patients and pathology in a city whose population approaches that of all Canada. Whereas many Canadian schools struggle to ensure students are exposed to all clinical problems, clinical instructors in China are able to select patients for students to see and work with based on their educational needs. The Internal Medicine clerkship director pointed out how she is able to first identify what clinical problems any particular student needs to encounter, then select among multiple appropriate patients.

The fourth essential element is resources. These include space for teaching, facilities for basic science instruction and the equipment and technology necessary to provide contemporary medical care. This requires a commitment on the part of school and medical leadership to ensure resource stewardship, and mechanisms to ensure they have the means to ensure updating and refreshing into the future.

And so, in the end, the similarities were much more significant than the differences. It comes down to students, teachers and patients coming together in an environment providing adequate resources to allow the educational process to flourish. When they do, it seems education just happens, almost spontaneously. Without any of the first three fully in place, it’s not possible, even with outstanding resources.

The purpose of a medical school and its leadership is to ensure the essential elements are in place and well-supported. Once they are, education happens. The urge to learn and to teach, it would seem, transcend geography, culture and politics.