Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Reality Has No Manual

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Reality Has No Manual

Article excerpt

Kevin Fong asks himself how to prepare his students for the impossible

Every now and again, you wonder what you know for sure about your job. Right now, all I know for sure is that this evening, I must mark the coursework and write this column.

I know that part of my day job is to teach undergraduates, some of whom are going to be tomorrow's junior doctors. It is a strange thing, teaching medical students and trying to work out what they might one day need to know. At the best of times, it feels as though we are not fully up to the task. At the worst of times, it feels less like a professional traineeship and more like Timothy Q. Mouse giving Dumbo the elephant a feather, shortly before he shoves him off a cliff.

Unlike those teaching the "proper" science students, you know something of what lies in store for them. You are getting them ready for something real. You are preparing them for the reality of the job, for the days when it is something other than swanning around wards sporting white coats and wearing stethoscopes like feather boas.

We do the naming of parts thing. Foist upon them a Haynes manual for the human body. And we are getting better, I guess. These days, we go beyond rote, beyond the simple remembering and regurgitation of facts. We prepare them in our classrooms to snipe confidently at someone else's study, to query the quality of the case mix or the randomisation of the trial. We prepare them to see the wood from the trees in the evidence, to be cynical about the hard sell from some corners of the pharmaceutical industry. We help them to understand the difference between what they know and what they think they know.

This we can do. We even teach them something of the softer skills that doctors need: the breaking of bad news and the ethical dilemmas; the questions for which there are no right answers. These days, it seems that there are courses for everything.

They are better students than we ever were. They should be. They have a thousand different teachers available, literally at the push of a button, waiting patiently 24/7 on the end of a URL. They are awash with knowledge, given in good faith, sloshing down digital pipes, spilling off the pages of e-journals. Everything the independent-minded, gifted autodidact needs to be a doctor. …

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