A different way of teaching, learning medicine
About 17 years ago, Bethany, a former patient of mine, asked if she could shadow me for three months at my office. She had just finished her premed course at the University of Maine. She wanted to apply to a medical school.
In the first couple of weeks, she just observed what I was doing. Then I let her listen to the chest and heart of my patients and, in time, to use the otoscope to look at the eardrum. Soon she was palpating the abdomen of babies and checking the hips for dislocation.
After about a month of Bethany’s observing and listening to how I took the clinical history of children with ear and throat infections, I would leave her to interview the parents and write the history herself. When I would return to the examination room, I would find the history and details of the physical exam already done in the computer.
Near the end of her three-month “training,” Bethany was writing prescriptions for the most common antibiotics for ear and throat infections as well as pneumonia.
A couple of years later, my son, Len, completed his course in biology at the same university that Bethany went to. He wanted to take a year off before applying to medical schools, and he volunteered to help at my office. Like Bethany, he shadowed me and learned how to take a patient’s clinical history and conduct a physical examination.
Neither Bethany nor Len attended formal lectures in basic medical subjects like anatomy and physiology. Because my office was busy, I just told them the main features of a disease to make a diagnosis. I advised them to read about pneumonia, asthma, ear infections, strep throat, appendicitis, migraine, etc. after office hours.
Len shadowed me for about 11 months, and I treated him like a third year med student. And during that time, aside from diagnosing the most common illnesses in children, he was able to suspect appendicitis in two cases—and the surgical reports confirmed it. Just after about three months, I left Len alone with my patients and their parents, and he independently wrote the histories and physical examinations, made diagnoses, and wrote prescriptions. I reviewed what he had done and signed the Rx. In the vast majority of patients, his diagnoses were on target.
Now why am I telling you about Bethany and Len? With the advent of the iPad, tablets, smartphones, and laptops, I think we can drastically change how we educate our medical students, in a better and faster way, with less of the stress that may lead them to depression or suicide.
The only lecture-based topics that medical students need are: how to take a history, to do a physical examination, to make a differential diagnosis, and to request the most common lab and imaging procedures. These can be done in the first six months of med school. Then they should be exposed to patients as early as the second half of the first year. The “basic sciences” standard lectures should be reduced by 80 percent; they should be allowed to study independently outside the lecture room using video lectures by the best teachers, which are available 24/7.
During the bedside interview with the patient, using an iPad or tablet, students can easily look for the common signs and symptoms, pertinent physical exam, and patho-physiology procedure needed to figure out the diagnosis. With a resident guiding or demonstrating to them the steps in making a diagnosis, students will learn clinical medicine faster than in the traditional lecture-based education which, from my experience, was stressful because of tons of memorization.
Armed with an iPad, tablet, or laptop, students can make an electronic patient portfolio file (EPPF) that they have to keep from first to fourth year. Their graduation will be based on this EPPF. However, they will have to see a minimum number of patients afflicted with asthma, migraine, diabetes, pneumonia, heart failure, meningitis, depression, head injury, fracture, appendicitis, etc. The EPPF will carry complete histories, physical exams, differential diagnoses, work-ups, discussions, and evidence-based medicine references (if available).
The EPPF will be designed to include a self-assessment test after each case; a student should be expected to answer and pass this test by at least 90 percent. The questions will be almost the same as what are being asked in the national board exams.
Students’ EPPFs can be easily reviewed by senior residents, mentors, or consultants without them leaving the comfort of their office or living room. A patient may also access an EPPF if he/she desires to do so, and correct or add new information. If the patient has an e-mail or Facebook account, a student can do follow-up work and an outcome study. Those who are interested in teaching, even if not part of the faculty, may volunteer to be e-mentors. With this pool of talent and experience, learning can be more personal and global.
About 10 years ago, I hosted an e-learning case-based problem-solving session with third year students of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. It was fun, and one of my e-students commented that he learned from my e-mails much more than in the six-week rotation at the Department of Pediatrics. This student has just completed his gastro-intestinal fellowship at Mayo Clinic.
Bethany is now a cardiovascular surgeon, and Len an internist-pediatrician.
Dr. Leonardo L. Leonidas ([email protected]) retired in 2008 as assistant clinical professor in pediatrics from Boston’s Tufts University School of Medicine, where he was recognized with a Distinguished Career Teaching Award in 2009. He is a 1968 graduate of the University of the Philippines’ College of Medicine.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.