Welcome to the Undergraduate Blog
Five ways being a Geneticist helped me improve my teaching skills
By Andrea Guerin, Year 2 Director and Clinical Geneticist
When growing up, the career choices offered are often dichotomous, do you want to be a lawyer or a firefighter, nurse or entrepreneur, doctor or teacher? In reality, most jobs are a blend of a few different skills. In medicine, doctors can be scientists, can run a business, and for most of us, being a teacher is a large part of our job. At first blush, being a Geneticist and a teacher doesn’t seem to have much in common, but my training in Medical Genetics has significantly influenced my role in education. Here are five examples I’d like to share:
Geneticists are wordsmiths. Language is very highly selected, “cause” not “reason”, “typical” not “normal” and “chance” not “risk”. The language I use with my patients is specific and inclusive, positive and hopefully, precise. Words are important, to convey meaning without an agenda, to educate without prejudice. I use the same thought in the classroom. I am mindful of the implicit biases that can be drawn from words. Words are powerful and their power needs to be recognized and headed.
Medicine is learning a new language. So is education. I’m not going to lie, I had never designed a small group session before coming to Queen’s and I certainly did not know what a Directed Independent Learning event was. When I came, I was disoriented, DILs, SGLs, RATs, GTAs. The terminology was overwhelming. But, like learning the language of medicine, I learnt the language of education too. We’ve added a few more in the past year in undergraduate medical education CBME, EPA, with only more to come.
Technology is forever changing, but good ideas stand the test of time
When I started my residency 10 years ago the understanding of genetic testing was very different. Many tests were not available. Testing was laborious, going from gene to gene, with months of anxious anticipation in between. Now, a decade later, I can order a test that looks at all the necessary genes of the body that have a purpose. Results can be available more quickly. Interpretation is more of a challenge, as we learn more, it becomes more evident the gaps in our knowledge and tying findings to patient symptoms can be a challenge. The concept of having parents and environment contributing to the health of the child is an old one, with influences from Ancient Greece to India. This testing is a reinvention of an old idea — we have only identified the individual factors (genes) that support what has been seen for thousands of years.
When I went to medical school, problem based learning was new. Powerpoint was a staple of lectures. There were almost no laptops. We would never have thought to work in groups while in the same classroom. That was an activity reserved for afternoon sessions, segregated into rooms under the watchful eye of a faculty facilitator. Marks were given from formal assessments, not team assignments or readiness assessment tests. That’s not to say assessments were not happening, they were just less formalized. It was a gut feeling. Did the clinical skills tutor think you were professional? Did the small group facilitator see that you participated? Now, assessments, both summative and formative are happening all the time. The actual process has become more concrete and transparent, but the idea has not changed.
It’s all developmental
Genetics is one of only a few specialties where the patient population spans from before cradle to grave. When I see a patient with a concern, I endeavour to find out when it started. An understanding of development, both physical and emotional, is key to my practice. You must walk, before you run.
Education is no different. The expectation must be adjusted to where the student is in their education journey. It’s okay to not know the differential in the first year, but in fourth year, students must be equipped with the knowledge and expertise to generate a differential and initiate management. Expectations need to match where the learner is, just like my patients.
No person is an island
Genetics is a team sport. In clinic, amongst clinician and researchers spanning the province, country or world, we work together to solve diagnostic mysteries and provide good patient care.
Education is the same. Teachers, admin support, education support, technical support and student support and feedback are essential to the teaching process. Behind every teacher, there is a team supporting them in their journey.
Comfortable with the uncomfortable concept of unknowns
After years of education, I will never be done learning. There is always more to learn, and no physician, despite years of practice and experience knows everything. When I counsel patients I always raise the possibility of an unknown. A confusing result, a question left unanswered. There is no crystal ball.
Education continues to surprise me, but I am open to the concept of something new, unknown. Can we produce excellent physicians using different teaching methods? Of course we can. Each of my colleagues had different curricula, different forms of instruction. There is more than one way to teach — the “best way” is still unknown.
Residency Match Day 2018: What our students are experiencing, and how to help them get through it
“Keep trying. Stay humble, Trust your instincts. Most importantly, act. When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
The last sentence of Mr. Berra’s famous statement is usually quoted in isolation. Without the context of the first few phrases, it’s humorous, but doesn’t carry much meaning, and is something of a disservice to its author. The full statement, in contrast, is a call to commitment and action, and conveys real wisdom.
His words come particularly to mind at this time of year when our senior students face what might be termed a “life altering event”.
We’re all familiar with that concept. These are moments when the course of our lives pivots on a single event or decision. Many of these are unexpected and their impact only appreciated retrospectively. However, when they’re known and anticipated, they’re understandably accompanied by much emotion – excitement, speculation, and trepidation.
For medical students in Canada, “Match Day” is one of those events.
For those of you not familiar, Match Day is when all fourth year students learn which postgraduate program they will be entering. The match is the final step in a long process of contemplation, exploration and application. The match and the day itself are full of drama, with all results being released simultaneously at noon.
This year, Match Day is March 1. By approximately 12:00:05 that day, all students will know their fate. As you can imagine, there will be much anxiety leading up to the release. For most (hopefully all), the day will be one of relief and celebration. For a very few (and hopefully none), there may be disappointment and confusion. Many schools release their fourth year clinical clerks from clinical duties on Match Day. At Queen’s we have taken the position that our students take on professional obligations during their training and their personal celebrations should not supervene those obligations. Having said that, I’d like to remind any faculty supervising our fourth year students on March 1st of the following:
- Anticipate that your student will be distracted that morning
- Please ensure your student is able to review their results at noon.
- Check on your student. If he or she is disappointed, please be advised that the student counselors and myself are standing by that day to help any student deal with their situation and develop a plan.
- Be advised that the students will almost certainly be holding some type of celebratory event that evening. Although your students are not excused for personal purposes, I would ask that you give them every reasonable consideration.
Fortunately, we have an excellent Student Affairs team, headed by Dr. Renee Fitzpatrick, who is available and very willing to answer any questions you may have and respond to concerns regarding our students. The team can be accessed through our Student Affairs office firstname.lastname@example.org, or 613-533-6000 x78451. The faculty counselors can also be contacted directly at the following:
Director, Student Affairs
Career Counselor email@example.com
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.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Associate Dean, Undergraduate Medical Education
A Final Gift from a First Patient
Bill died last week. He was 93 and, at the end, his passing could be considered neither tragic nor unexpected. His daughter thoughtfully called my office to let me know, and that he wouldn’t be keeping his next clinic appointment.
The last few years hadn’t been easy for him, bringing increasing disability and dependency. Things hadn’t been really right since Daphne passed away about three years ago, after over 60 years of marriage.
Before that they’d always come to clinic together and supported each other through their health issues, surgeries and increasing fragility. Bill was one of those people who seemed incapable of despondency or self-pity. Always smiling, he began every appointment by asking me how I was doing, and never left without thanking me. He never refused a request to allow a learner to listen to his heart. In fact, he usually offered before being asked. Like many of his generation, he never lost that sense of gratitude for what his new country made available to him and felt a need to repay that debt.
He’d emigrated from England in the 1950s. He was an engineer and worked in various projects over the years both in Canada and Europe, finally retiring in Kingston over 30 years ago, building his “dream house” with Daphne. In retirement, he developed a large community of friends, including many neighbours (some of whom were physicians in our hospitals) who would support him as he continued to live there alone. They would often bring him into clinic appointments, or call with concerns about him.
In one of his last selfless acts, he agreed to participate in our First Patient Program. Two of our first year students, Madison Price and Michael Christie, got the opportunity to meet Bill, visit with him, accompany him to appointments, and hear about his medical history and life story. He taught them something about heart disease and its various complications, but mostly he taught them about the patient experience of living with a chronic condition, about how physicians can provide valuable care even after cure is no longer possible, about the remarkable courage and grace with which patients can face the end of life, and about how communities can come together to support those in need.
He shared personal stories with them, telling them about how he had worked on developing radar equipment for Lancaster bombers during the Second World War. He told of how his brother was a tail gunner on those aircraft, which provided Bill even more incentive to ensure the radar was effective.
He believed he had something valuable to impart to these young people and future physicians and indeed he did. In the end, his final gift was to teach them about bereavement and, particularly, how physicians and health care providers can be affected by the loss of patients they’ve cared for, come to know, and admire. He made medicine real to them by giving it a human face that, I believe, they will never forget.
With his willingness to engage these students during his final days, he provided a priceless and lasting gift, not only to these two aspiring physicians, but also to their future patients.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
“Lifestyle as Medicine” Symposium February 12
By Daniel Rusiecki and Leah Allen (Meds 2021), “Lifestyle as Medicine” Symposium co-organizers
“The doctor of the future will give no medication, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.” ― Thomas A. Edison
However far-fetched Mr. Edison’s vision may be, the idea of the first line of treatment being the intrinsic care of the human body and what we put into it is not off the mark whatsoever. Being the new kid on the block in first-year medical school, travelling through this area of modern medicine has one questioning how much exogenous medication would be needed if our society hasn’t progressed the way it has. What if cars never existed, and everyone had to walk to their daily job? Would over 20% of our Canadian population still be classified as obese? What if our food didn’t come out of a factory, or from a fast-food restaurant drive-thru window? Would we still be dealing with a diabetes epidemic where 3.4 million of our sisters, brothers, parents, friends and neighbours are injecting themselves with insulin daily? The questions can go on and on, but they don’t answer one vital question: how do we move forward?
Practicing physicians will have approximately 2200 patient visits per year. With a career length of 35 years that’s almost 80,000 opportunities to influence the health and lives of these individuals. It’s crazy to think about how much influence one future physician can have, let alone the whole Queen’s undergraduate cohort, the residents, and affiliated physicians. If you are a future physician or practicing physician reading this post, would you rather prescribe your patient medication for their hypertension when they are 45 years old, or have the skills and knowledge to help them prevent hypertension when they are 30?
Equipping our workforce with the knowledge, skills and fearlessness to invoke a healthy lifestyle change is at the root of how we can move forward. Not only can we prolong and enhance the lives of our patients directly, but we can advocate to improve societal systems as a whole. We also have the opportunity to reduce the cost of our healthcare over the long-term due to the reduction of drug prescriptions and improvements in health of the general population.
The “Lifestyle as Medicine” symposium will be the start of a journey to better equip future or practicing physicians with the artillery necessary for these changes. The symposium will be take place Monday, February 12 from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. in the School of Medicine Building, room 132A.
Dr. Robert Ross, a prominent researcher in the area of diabetes and related co-morbidities will speak on how cardiorespiratory fitness can be a significant vital sign for a patient’s health status. Andrea Brennan, a registered dietitian, will then take the floor to deliver key nutritional principles every physician should know, as well as shed light on current diet trends and the evidence supporting them. Dr. Chris Frank, a geriatric and palliative care physician, will then give insight on how he maintains healthy habits while being a busy physician. Finally, to get a taste of the patients perspective, Doug Dowling will speak about his passion for fitness and how the diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in his early 20s impacted him.
We hope you will join us for this thought-provoking, educational event.
Making the most of features on Queen’s Library website
By Suzanne Maranda, Head Health Sciences Librarian, Queen’s University Library
[Editor’s note: text in italics indicates a hyperlink]
After I demonstrated the Queen’s University Library (QUL) website at the December 2017 UGME Curriculum retreat, Dr Sanfilippo asked me to prepare an entry for this blog with further information about the site. The changes to the website that occurred in the fall of 2016 were quite dramatic and many of you sent us feedback about the new QUL web pages. During the 16 months since the new QUL website was launched, the librarians collected this user feedback and worked closely with the Library staff to implement a few features that would benefit all our users.
The QUL website was redesigned to offer access to all services and resources via the main page. The main library page has an extensive top bar menu that remains on all library pages and can lead users to all the central services, including the library catalogue (QCAT) and Summon, our discovery tool, as well as to the specific subject areas, such as health sciences. For the Health Sciences community there are now two types of library web pages:
- The Bracken Library physical space page: this is where you reserve a library group room, check our hours and other services related to the physical collection (e.g. signing books out, requesting materials) and using the library spaces.
- The health sciences collections subject page: this is where you find access to health sciences databases and resources such as the point-of-care tools, mobile apps, multimedia materials. This page is grouped with all the other subject pages on campus, which you can find on any library page under “Search/Research by Subject” in the top banner and menu.
Based on user feedback, the Health Sciences subject guide was edited in 2017 to provide quick access to health sciences resources. Some of the most important resources are now at the top of the page, e.g. Medline, CINAHL, PubMed1 and Point-of-Care tools. You will however want to look at the subject guides prepared by librarians to support your research and teaching information needs. There are subject guides for Nursing, Medicine, Rehabilitation Therapy, and Life Sciences and Biochemistry. To access health sciences resources quickly, add the relevant subject guide link to your web browser favourites list and learning management software for students in your classes. We also have guides that highlight resources for specific programs or topics (e.g. Aging and Health, History of Medicine), and guides that are more about tools such as citation management, avoiding predatory publishers and the one with approaches and resources to develop systematic reviews and other syntheses. Check out the complete list of guides on the Health Sciences Subject page.
These guides are prepared for you BUT we would love your input: if anything you find worthwhile could be added to the list of resources, please let us know. Any resource format can be included in addition to books and journals: websites, videos, images… if you find something useful, whether in our library collection or on the web (for the latter we will ensure that it can be shared widely), please send us a note. And of course, if you think that a new guide could be developed to support your teaching and research areas, please contact us.
Best wishes for happy searching and be sure to reach out if librarians can help you locate and organize information (remember, we love doing this and just maybe… you have other things to do!). Please continue to tell us what you think of the new library web pages.
1Note that searching Pubmed via a library page brings all the links to full-text available via the QUL collections.
On a gumdrop cake fail and multiple points of assessment
What can a failed gumdrop cake remind us about assessment?
I’m a pretty good baker and love to indulge myself when there’s time, like last month’s holiday season. For me, baking is partly about eating (of course!) but also about tradition, hospitality, and comfort.
Just before Christmas, I set out to make a gumdrop cake. It was an unmitigated disaster. When I turned it out of the pan, it collapsed. (See embarrassing photo at right).
Based on that single point of baking, a casual observer could determine that I’m a lousy baker. In fact, I should be barred from the kitchen and given directions to the closest bakery for all subsequent treats. This wouldn’t be a fair representation of my skills, just a snapshot of a single – bad! – evening.
It’s the same for our system of assessment in the UG program: no single assessment determines a student’s progress. We use multiple points of assessment, both in preclerkship classes and through clerkship rotations, to ensure we have an accurate portrait of a student’s performance over time. Admittedly, some assessments are higher stakes than others, but no single assessment will determine a student’s fate in the program.
Anyone can have an “off” day – for any number of reasons. What’s important following poor performance, is to take stock of what happened, reflect on what may have contributed to the poor outcome, and make a plan for next time.
I was really upset. I’d made this many times. I was “good” at this. Had I somehow lost my baking mojo? Plus, I was embarrassed — as well as annoyed with myself for wasting all kinds of butter, sugar, eggs, flour and gumdrops!
My adult daughter gamely offered this advice: “Sometimes a new recipe takes a few times to get right.” Except it wasn’t a new recipe. I’ve made this gumdrop cake dozens of times for over two decades. What could possibly have gone wrong? I reread the recipe (photocopied from my mother’s handwritten book) and my scrawled notes in the margins. I’d used mini-gummy-bears in place of the “baking gums”. In trying to be cute and expedient (didn’t have to chop those up!), I’d sabotaged my own cake. I’d also forgotten to put the pan of water on the bottom rack, but I thought that was likely pretty minor.
For students after a poor assessment, that same reflection can help: did I study or practice enough? Was it efficient study/practice? Was I under the weather? Did I have enough sleep? These self-reflection questions will vary based on the type of assessment, but it boils down to this: What can I learn from this assessment experience and what can I do differently next time?
I waited over a week before I attempted the gumdrop cake again. In the meantime, I (successfully) made four kinds of cookies, a triple-ginger pound cake, and a slew of banana breads. Then, I bought the right kind of baking gumdrops and remembered to follow ALL the instructions, and it turned out just fine. In fact, I sent some to my parents in New Brunswick and my mother judged it “delicious”.
With thanks to Eleni Katsoulas, Assessment & Evaluation Consultant, for her continued counsel on assessment practices.
17th Health and Human Rights Conference held
By Aalok Shah (Meds 2020), HHRC Conference Co-Chair
Human Rights, a concept that has existed for millennia and documented in seminal political and religious documents such as the Magna Carta and the Vedas, got a more modern treatment in November 2017 at the Health & Human Rights Conference (HHRC). The HHRC is a proud tradition of Queen’s medicine students, who have organized this conference autonomously for the past 16 years. Since its inception in 2001, this conference has evolved in both
scope and reach, reflecting the push for interdisciplinary learning and collaboration in education. The 17th iteration of the conference reached out to professionals both within and outside of medicine to educate and engage delegates on its theme of “affirming the human right to health for the poor.” With generous donations from organizations such as the Ontario Medical Students Association (OMSA) and the Canadian Federation of Medical Students (CFMS), the 17th HHRC was the first student-run conference in Canada to welcome over 150 students from all over the nation to discuss human rights and health.
The conference itself was divided into two days.
The first day was more didactic in nature, featuring events aimed at educating delegates on traditional social assistance programs and the newer model of the basic income guarantee. Sheila Regehr, the chair of Basic Income Guarantee Canada, gave a keynote address explaining both the philosophical and practical reasons for incorporating a basic income model of social assistance, and its impact on health of the poorest populations in Canada. After this address, delegates witnessed a debate between economists, politicians, and professors on whether a basic income guarantee should replace traditional social assistance programs in Ontario. While parts of the debate were very technical and required knowledge of economics, many delegates reported learning a lot more about the issue with a better appreciation of the pros and cons of both sides.
The second day was more interactive, offering several workshops that engaged delegates in topics including indigenous health, global health, mental health, and art-based interventions in health promotion. Additionally, the “community initiatives fair” provided a great opportunity for delegates to interact and network with organizations in Kingston that are involved in local development work. Some students signed up to volunteer at such organizations during this time, and appreciated the chance to channel their motivation and energy from the conference into action right away. Finally, the second day also featured Dr. Samantha Green, who gave a keynote address on mental health, and offered practical tips for healthcare providers in engaging with patients who may be facing financial or emotional calamities.
Overall, the conference was successful in renewing a discussion about intrinsic rights of humans to health, and how to best achieve equity in an era of equality. This conference would not have been possible without the hard work of the executive committee of 13 people featured below and generous sponsors including the Aesculapian Society, the Dean’s Fund, OMSA, CFMS, Queen’s Innovation Centre, Principal’s Office, Society of Graduate Studies, School of Kinesiology, Global Development Studies, Queen’s Human Rights Office, and the Office of the Vice-Provost.
New and improved resources for teaching, research and clinical application
By Suzanne Maranda, Head Health Sciences Librarian, Queen’s University Library
(Italics indicates a hyperlink)
Are you looking for images to include in your presentations or online modules? Two Thieme products are now available online and any materials from these two resources, one in Anatomy and the other in Pharmacology, can be extracted and included in any materials that will be used in a Queen’s course or presentation. Please contact me if you would like the complete license agreement.
Usage statistics of these resources will be collected to inform our decision about renewing or not. There are two other products (Physiology and Biochemistry) from the same publisher that could be added if requested and if funds permit. The two subjects purchased were chosen in consultation with the staff preparing online modules for the BHSC program.
The other tool I would like to highlight is relatively new as it was added in September 2017. Read by QxMD is a mobile app that enables a more direct link to the journal articles subscribed by the Library and to open access journals. The link provided here is to the page of all our mobile apps, please scroll to the instructions on how to get Read to work with the Queen’s resources. When you set up a profile, you can receive email notifications of new articles that match your profile. Check out the new “medical education” option that I requested be added. This company is quite responsive, I would be happy to pass on other topic/category suggestions.
Isabel is a diagnostic support tool that can be useful in clinics and possibly for teaching clinical skills. In December 2017 the librarians participated in a webinar with the developer of Isabel to review software enhancements.
Once a few symptoms are entered, a list of possible conditions is presented for follow-up, the coloured bar on the side (see green arrow) of the list indicates the strength of the likelihood (red is best). Notice the separate tab at the top of the results box for possible drugs ( ) that may cause the symptoms you entered. By clicking on a condition, you are taken to the Dynamed entry by default. If there is no Dynamed entry, then we link to BMJ Best Practice. A few other resources have been added for linking, you see these in the left hand box, so that one can choose to look at a different resource, or even consult more than one. There is a mobile version of this clinical tool, see instructions on our mobile apps guide.
I hope you will try Isabel and consider completing the online survey (at the red arrow) that is linked from the Isabel pages to ask for your feedback about this resource.
As always, do contact us if you have any questions about the above resources or anything else information-related.
The Winter Solstice – Nature’s promise of better things to come
What do the Temple of Karnack in Luxor, Stonehenge in England, Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru have in common?
Answer: They are all constructed, in part, to align with and mark the winter solstice. At Stonehenge, the central altar and “slaughter stone” are aligned precisely with the rays of the sunset on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
The winter solstice, which occurs this week, is the day of the year with the least number of daylight hours for people in the northern hemisphere, and the most for those in the southern hemisphere. The exact timing of the solstice varies somewhat from year to year. This year, it occurs on Thursday December 21 at 16:28 GMT. It occurs because the vertical axis of the earth is not aligned perfectly perpendicular to the sun, but inclined about 23.5 degrees. This results in the hemispheres getting variable periods of daylight as the earth rotates during its annual journey around the sun.
There is much speculation as to why these various ancient civilizations chose to erect such monuments to mark the solstice. Clearly, they saw it as a pivotal event in their lives. They would have perceived the life-giving sun to be gradually withdrawing from their lives through the previous few months and then, on this particular day, and for no reason they could comprehend or control, re-emerging with the promise that life would continue once again.
Whatever their motivation, these structures should remind us that the peoples of the past were keen and respectful observers of the natural world. They recognized that the rhythms of the cosmos, even if beyond their understanding, were key to their survival. The ability to cultivate crops, find game and the essential need to store food and prepare for long winters was closely tied to their understanding of natural climate cycles. Observing the natural world was therefore not a casual pastime, but an essential survival skill. For these reasons, they were much more attuned to nature than those of us living in an era where, for most of us, technical advances have reduced diminishing daylight to a minor nuisance.
However, the solstice is in some ways a great leveler of humanity. It has been a feature of our collective life experience since human beings first walked the earth. It is also one of the very few events that occur at the exact same instant each year for everyone on the planet. It is therefore an event that transcends geography, culture, economic advantage, national boundaries, or even time itself. It links us all and reminds us that there are much greater forces at play in our lives than anything we can hope to control or even fully understand.
It also brings hope. It is the time of year when, through no effort, merit or intent on our part, light begins to re-emerge into our lives and, with it, the promise of new life in the spring. It is a time when, like nature itself, we should stop, rest and look hopefully forward.
It’s in that spirit that I wish our faculty and students a restful, safe and restorative break from the routine of busy lives, and very best wishes, as we will again come together to engage the new year.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
“To boldly go where no (Doctor) has gone before”
Those as nerdy as I will recognize the title of this article as paraphrased from the introduction to the original Star Trek television series. That program, set in a technologically advanced future, was about a long journey of discovery. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of that journey is that it had no particular destination. The voyagers were simply wandering aimlessly, hoping to run into something interesting. Consequently, they often found themselves woefully unprepared for the challenges they faced – an excellent means to provide dramatic tension to a fictional story, but a dubious strategy for real life.
A medical school curriculum is basically a journey. For our students, it’s a journey that will take them into an unknown future. Like any real journey (and in contrast to the intrepid Star Trek crew), establishing a destination is the first, critical step. A long journey may consist of many stages and stops along the way that demand our immediate attention, but those stages are only meaningful if they move the traveler toward some ultimate goal. That goal, of course, is to become effective, fulfilled providers of medical care to members of our society.
The students currently in medical school will be practicing into the mid 21st century. If we’re to provide them an education that will best prepare them to make meaningful contributions, we need to give some thought what that world will look like, and what it will require of them as physicians and professional leaders.
This was the topic of a presentation and subsequent discussion at our semi-annual Curricular Retreat this past week. In preparing some remarks to begin that discussion, I attempted to draw on changes that have occurred in the course of my career and use those observations to extrapolate into the future. I came up with five that I think are particularly relevant. This is, by no means, a complete list, but perhaps sets the tone and the challenge.
In no particular order:
- The role of physicians as purveyors of medical knowledge.
Knowledge is the fundamental fuel of medical practice, and the commodity that gives legitimacy to those providing care. A generation ago, medical knowledge was elusive. It had to be searched out, a process that was paper based and time consuming. Physicians were the primary source and conveyors of medical knowledge. People who wished to become physicians went to medical schools largely to seek out the knowledge and skills that were embodied in the practicing physicians who taught there.
That has all changed. Medical knowledge is now available, almost instantly, who anyone who wishes to find it. Physicians are no longer the primary source of that knowledge. They no longer hold any monopoly on knowledge.
- The expanding applications of Artificial Intelligence and robotic technology.
We were all impressed when Watson defeated chess masters and Jeopardy champions. In my field of cardiology, I think many dismissed automated interpretations of electrocardiograms as simple algorithm-driven time savers that would always require physician verification. The same is happening with respect to interpretation of diagnostic imaging such as chest x-rays and CT scans.
But AI is moving far beyond these applications that are based simply on prodigious memory storage and processing capacity. Applications are becoming much more sophisticated and are developing the ability to learn and adapt to dynamic situations. Diagnostic algorithms are available that will provide reasonable differential diagnoses for patient presentations, and computer interfaces are under development that are frighteningly life like in their ability to interpret individual patient speech and even facial expressions.
Robotic applications in the operating rooms and procedure suites hold the promise of increasing technical expertise and consistency while reducing infection rates. They also allow for interventions in locations where the human hands are simply incapable of performing.
Extrapolating forward, it’s not at all hard to imagine a world where most diagnostic imaging and many therapeutic interventions will require much less, or perhaps no human intervention.
- Our fundamental understanding of human disease.
For generations, physicians have understood and characterized disease states based on what they could observe clinically. “Consumption”, “Whooping Cough” and “Scarlet Fever” are examples of conditions described solely on symptoms and visual inspection. As the ability to image patients and do laboratory analyses improved, patients with Consumption were found to have pulmonary damage caused by Tuberculosis, Whooping Cough became Pertussis and Scarlet Fever became associated with streptococcus infection.
I have lectured students for over 20 years on the classification, diagnosis and management of cardiomyopathies based on morphologic distinctions (Dilated, Hypertrophic, Restrictive) established by clinical examination and imaging appearances. My teaching is now changing, based on new classification schemes based not on morphology, but on the genetic mutations that result in abnormal development of cardiac muscle cells and channels.
This is not only highly appropriate, but promises to bring genetically based therapeutics that promise to alter the natural history of these conditions in ways currently not available. It also represents an entirely new science, involving genomics and an understanding of sub-cellular processes that practitioners of the future will need to understand and develop comfort with if they’re to provide optimal care.
- Standardized approaches to disease management.
Physician order sheets used to be blank and on paper. They have not only become electronically integrated into patient management systems of various designs, but have also become prepopulated with standard orders for many, even most, clinical conditions. Often, all that’s required are patient specific data such as body size and renal function, and a physician’s signature (real or virtual) at the bottom of the page.
This is good in the sense that it promotes consistent and evidence based approaches to these conditions, and reduces transcription errors. However, it can also diminish the educational experience of medical students, and may not fully account for the needs of patients with multiple medical problems or individual characteristics that require an individualized approach.
- Expanding role of non-physicians in health care delivery.
The widespread availability of medical knowledge in general and guideline based management strategies specifically has allowed for other health care providers, such as nurse practitioners, pharmacists and physician assistants, to participate more fully many situations. Another example from my field would be the expanding role of nurse practitioners in heart failure clinics. NPs are fully capable of managing the introduction and maintenance of standard therapies in this population of patients who often require close and continuing surveillance. They do so very effectively, and their participation has been shown to improve patient functional status and reduce hospital admissions.
And so, what to do…
It’s important to state from the outset that this is all good. These five changes will make health care more effective and efficient. Like any development they have potential pitfalls, but, appropriately managed, they will bring significant advantages to our patients. It’s also important to recognize that they are not going away. Technologic progress does not wait for us, or any group, to be ready.
And so, we must engage some very difficult and disturbing questions, summarized in this slide I presented at our recent retreat:
Obviously, there are no definitive answers, but I provide a few thoughts that emerged from recent discussions.
- Students no longer need to undertake medical education in order to locate knowledge – they are quite capable of doing that on their own. They do, however, require guidance as to what will be relevant to their careers, and an ability to interpret and evaluate the merits of the tsunami of information that will come their way.
- AI has the potential to dramatically improve the delivery of care, but can be highly threatening, partly because applications can develop out of context and without clear applications. Physicians of the future need to be more than consumers of AI, they need to involved in the development of applications, the purpose of which should always be to advance care. To do so, they will need fundamental education that develops familiarity with the technology and its potential.
- Medical education has always been rooted in science, but the nature of that science is changing rapidly. Fundamental knowledge about normal human structure and function will always be required, but will need to extend beyond the superficially observable to penetrate the genetic and subcellular levels of normal and abnormal human function.
- As Physicians are needed less and less to interpret test results or manage standard, well-defined clinical issues, their role will extend to ensuring patients enter the care system appropriately, and managing situations where the complexity or multiplicity of issues goes beyond standard management. This will require them to be even more acute assessors of patients at the primary presentation, develop high levels of sensitivity to patient outcomes that deviate from optimal, and have a depth of understanding of the scientific underpinnings of disease and system management that will allow them to step in and provide “customized” management when required. Indeed, “personalized medicine” may become the primary focus of the physician of the future.
All this, and no doubt much more, will require a vastly different approach to medical education, one that we need to begin to consider today. The future is closing in very rapidly. I’ll end with a quote regarding the future role of physicians from someone who was always technologically ahead of his time and not shy about expressing disruptive views:
“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patient in care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)
Edison may have been somewhat overly optimistic about the “give no medicine” prediction, but was certainly perceptive in predicting fundamental change in approach. Over the next few months, we’re going to engage a series of dialogues about the doctor, and medical school, of the future, beginning with our recent retreat and this article. Please feel free to participate with your thoughts as we “boldly go” about charting a course into the next few decades of medical practice and education.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education