Two long dead innovations

by reestheskin on 30/09/2014

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Its always a cheap shot (but true, nonetheless) to respond to students who say their medical school is better than most other medical schools, with the question “Have you been any other medial school?”. They may have some data, or have spoken to students from elsewhere, but most of the time I think it reflects the standard psychological bias we all suffer from. I am so glad I did dermatology rather than cardiology… (I am, I will add). And so on.
There is of course another bias, and that it to imagine that the grass is always greener else where. I certainly am guilty in this respect. I was always critical of my undergraduate medical degree at Newcastle, but with time I think I judged some of it too harshly. I am not referring to the fact that 10% of the clinical teaching sessions were no-shows by teaching staff who showed no interest in students. There were real problems, and there still are at most UK medical schools. I am just saying there were some good things. Let me describe two.
In the first two clinical years (years 3 and 4), Wednesday afternoons were sports afternoons. Or not, depending on your preferences — but there was no timetabled teaching. Wednesday mornings were devoted to a ‘special study research project’. This was highly informal, in that you decided whether you wanted to do it or not, and there was no formal structure to it, and of course, no exam. It didn’t count in terms of marks for any formal assessment. I doubt it has survived in this form, but as I look back now, I marvel at how farsighted the people were who planned it this way. If you didn’t want to do one or, like most research, it went nowhere, you just stopped it. You could stay in bed, or go to the library. Terrific. For me of course, it was how I met Sam Shuster, and that meeting determined the rest of my professional career.

The second thing, was the nature of the intercalated degree. Unlike many of the Scottish schools at least, the BMedSci was a bespoke course, built bottom up with the goal of providing training in medical science, not of allowing students to join other non-medical BSc courses. You could do it after year 2 or year 4. The idea being that being able to do it after you had clinical exposure, would encourage people to do clinical science projects. So, most students still wanted to become budding T cell immunologists (‘thymologists’ we called them) but people like me could tackle clinical problems (if they wished).
The degree was unmistakably a research degree. There was an intensive three month introduction, with my syllabus including med stats, epidemiology, health economics, and computing. The class size for all of this bar the stats was n=2 (for statistics it was n=12). Teaching was in a  lecturer’s offices over coffee. After the 3 month intensive course you were left to get on with your work for the remaining 9 months, with only 2 seminars to present, and a written individually bespoke exam, and a full length doctoral thesis to write. I forget the exact break down of marks, but over 70% were dependent on the thesis, which was examined by an external and internal, and included a viva. The degree was marketed (not the right word) to not just high fliers, but as an escape valve for those who found much of undergraduate medicine crushingly boring. This post is a way of saying thank you, and also a marker of how higher education has changed.

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