These days, more than ever, bits of good news are truly welcome. Like rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds on a gloomy day, they remind us that things are still basically right with the world and brighter days are ahead.

I had one of those experiences last week attending a wrap-up session for our First Patient Program. The FPP is a rather unique curricular offering at Queen’s supervised by Dr. Brenda Whitney and superbly organized by Ms. Kathy Bowes, an RN who has been working in various capacities in the undergraduate program for many years.

Patients are recruited from the Kingston community who have chronic medical problems requiring regular encounters with physicians and other health care providers. These patients generously agree to allow two of our first-year students to meet with them and their families, to get to know them personally and to follow them through the year. At the end of each year, a reception is held to thank them. Following are some pictures from the 2019 event.

From First Patient Reception 2019

The students are expected to learn about the illness experience through the eyes of the patient. They check in regularly and accompany patients to their various medical encounters. They are expected to gain insights not only about the specific condition afflicting the patient, but the impact of that condition on them and their family members, and of the practical challenges involved in the process of receiving care. For most of our first-year students, it is their first personal experience with chronic illness and its impact.

First Patient Reception 2019

This year, the pandemic posed considerable logistic challenges. Dr. Whitney and Ms. Bowes were remarkably creative and adaptable in adjusting the program to allow the students to gain valuable experiences despite the limitations.

First Patient Reception 2019

This past week a virtual wrap-up of the program was held, involving both students and their “first patients”. The highlight of the program, for me, was hearing from the students themselves about insights they had gained and taken away from their encounters. Here are a few samples, taken from the slide presentation prepared for the session.

What’s particularly remarkable is that all this was gleaned by a group of students whose introduction to the study and profession of medicine has been, to say the least, unconventional. Indeed, the pandemic and its myriad of imposed restrictions have drastically altered the educational experience for all our students. Although everyone involved has done everything possible to make the best of it, our students have not had opportunity to assemble as a class, work together or engage patient encounters as planned. They have accepted all this, by and large, with understanding and patience.

The first year class has been particularly affected because they’ve not yet had the opportunity to fully meet as a class or personally encounter many faculty members. Those of us responsible for their learning experience have had some apprehension and a few sleepless nights about the adequacy of what was being provided. Certainly, the course content and necessary knowledge was being imparted and learned. Assessments were satisfactorily completed. Skills that could be demonstrated and practiced were being mastered. But were they learning about what it is to engage patients? Were they learning to regard their patients as individuals with lives, hopes and families, to understand their suffering, to search for ways to help? Were they learning how necessary all this is to providing effective care?

Last week’s session made me realize that much has already been learned, including real-life lessons that could never have been imparted in a classroom or by reading scholarly works. They’ve learned that only by engaging real people with real problems can the full scope and value of medical care be truly realized. They’ve learned that our patients can be our best teachers.

And I learned that this group of students, despite all the accommodations that have been made to our curriculum, are going to be OK. They get it. They are on their way to becoming fine doctors.