The changing landscape of medical education

A brave new world


It’s Monday morning, and your intern is presenting an overnight admission. Lost in the details of his disorganized introduction, your mind wanders. “Why doesn’t this intern know how to present? When I trained, all those admissions during long sleepless nights really taught me to do this right.” But can we equate hours worked with competency achieved? And if not, what is the alternative? This article introduces some major changes in medical education and their implications for hospitalists.

Dr. Brian Kwan, associate professor of health science at University of California San Diego, and a hospitalist.

Dr. Brian Kwan

Most hospitalists trained in an educational system influenced by Sir William Osler. In the early 1900s, he introduced the natural method of teaching, positing that student exposure to patients and experience over time ensured that physicians in training would become competent doctors.1 His influence led to the current structure of medical education, which includes conventional third-year clerkships and time-limited rotations (such as a 2-week nephrology block).

While familiarity may be comforting, there are signs our current model of medical education is inefficient, inadequate, and obsolete.

For one, the traditional system is failing to adequately prepare physicians to provide safe and complex care. Reports, such as the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) “To Err is Human,”2 describe a high rate of preventable errors, highlighting considerable room for improvement in training the next generation of physicians.3,4

Meanwhile, trainees are still largely being deemed ready for the workforce by length of training completed (for example, completion of four-year medical school) rather than a skill set distinctly achieved. Our system leaves little flexibility to individualize learner goals, which is significant given some students and residents take shorter or longer periods of time to achieve proficiency. In addition, learner outcomes can be quite variable, as we have all experienced.

Even our methods of assessment may not adequately evaluate trainees’ skill sets. For example, most clerkships still rely heavily on the shelf exam5 as a surrogate for medical knowledge. As such, learners may conclude that testing performance trumps development of other professional skills.6 Efforts are being made to revamp evaluation systems to reflect mastery (such as Entrustable Professional Activities, or EPAs) toward competencies.7 Still, many institutions continue to rely on faculty evaluations that often reflect interpersonal dynamics rather than true critical thinking skills.6

Dr. Meghan Sebasky, assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego

Dr. Meghan Sebasky

Recognizing the above limitations, many educators have called for changing to outcome-based, or competency-based, training (CBME). CBME targets attainment of skills in performing concrete critical clinical activities,8 such as identifying unstable patients, providing initial management, and obtaining help. To be successful, supervisors must directly observe trainees, assess demonstrated skills, and provide feedback about progress.

Unfortunately, this considerable investment of time and effort is often poorly compensated. Additionally, unanswered questions remain. For example, how will residency programs continue to challenge physicians deemed “competent” in a required skill? What happens when a trainee is deficient and not appropriately progressing in a required skill? Is flexible training time part of the future of medical education? While CBME appears to be a more effective method of education, questions like these must be addressed during implementation.

Beyond the fact that hours worked cannot be used as a surrogate for competency, excessive unregulated work hours can be detrimental to learners, their supervisors, and patients. In 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) implemented a major change in medical education: duty hour limitations. The premise that sleep-deprived providers are more prone to error is well established. However, controversy remains as to whether these regulations translate into improved patient care and provider well-being. Studies published following the ACGME change demonstrate increasing burnout among physicians,9-11 which has led some educators to explore the potential relationship between burnout and duty hour restrictions.

The recent “iCOMPARE” trial, which compared internal medicine (IM) residencies with “standard duty-hour” policies to those with “flexible” policies (that is, they did not specify limits on shift length or mandatory time off between shifts), supported a lack of correlation between hours worked and burnout.12 Researchers administered the Maslach Burnout Inventory to all participants.13 While those in the “flexible hours” arm reported greater dissatisfaction with the effect of the program on their personal lives, both groups reported significant burnout, with interns recording high scores in emotional exhaustion (79% in flexible programs vs. 72% in standard), depersonalization (75% vs. 72%), and lack of personal accomplishment (71% vs. 69%).

Dr. Elaine Muchmore, hematologist/oncologist and professor of clinical medicine, University of California, San Diego, and associate, chief of staff for education, Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System

Dr. Elaine Muchmore

Disturbingly, these scores were not restricted to interns but were present in all residents. The good news? Limiting duty hours does not cause burnout. On the other hand, it does not protect from burnout. Trainee burnout appears to transcend the issue of hours worked. Clearly, we need to address the systemic flaws in our work environments that contribute to this epidemic. Nationwide, educators and organizations are continuing to define causes of burnout and test interventions to improve wellness.

A final front of change in medical education worth mentioning is the use of the electronic medical record (EMR). While the EMR has improved many aspects of patient care, its implementation is associated with decreased time spent with patients and parallels the rise in burnout. Another unforeseen consequence has been its disruptive impact on medical student documentation. A national survey of clerkship directors found that, while 64% of programs allowed students to use the EMR, only two-thirds of those programs permitted students to document electronically.14

Many institutions limit student access because of either liability concerns or the fact that student notes cannot be used to support medical billing. Concerning workarounds among preceptors, such as logging in students under their own credentials to write notes, have been identified.15 Yet medical students need to learn how to document a clinical encounter and maintain medical records.7,16 Authoring notes engages students, promotes a sense of patient ownership, and empowers them to feel like essential team members. Participating in the EMR also allows for critical feedback and skill development.

In 2016, the Society of Hospital Medicine joined several major internal medicine organizations in asking the federal government to reconsider guidelines prohibiting attendings from referring to medical student notes. In February 2018, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) revised its student documentation guidelines (see Box A), allowing teaching physicians to use all student documentation (not just Review of Systems, Family History, and Social History) for billable services.

While the guidelines officially went into effect in March 2018, many institutions are still fine-tuning their implementation, in part because of nonspecific policy language. For instance, if a student composes a note and a resident edits and signs it, can the attending physician simply cosign the resident note? Also, once a student has presented a case, can the attending see the patient and verify findings without the student present?

Despite the above challenges, the revision to CMS guidelines is a significant “win” and can potentially reduce the documentation burden on teaching physicians. With more oversight of their notes, the next generation of students will be encouraged to produce accurate, high-quality documentation.

In summary, these changes in the way we define competency, in duty hours, and in the use of the EMR demonstrate that medical education is continuously improving via robust critique and educator engagement in outcomes. We are fortunate to train in a system that respects the scientific method and utilizes data and critical events to drive important changes in practice. Understanding these changes might help hospitalists relate to the backgrounds and needs of learners. And who knows – maybe next time that intern will do a better job presenting!

Dr. Kwan is a hospitalist at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System (VASDHS) and an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, in the division of hospital medicine. He is the chair of the SHM Physicians in Training committee. Dr. Sebasky is an associate clinical professor at UCSD in the division of hospital medicine. Dr. Muchmore is a hematologist/oncologist and professor of clinical medicine in the department of medicine at UCSD and associate chief of staff for education at VASDHS.


1. Osler W. “The Hospital as a College.” In Aequanimitas. Osler W, Ed. (Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Son & Co., 1932).

2. Kohn LT, Corrigan JM, Donaldson MS, eds. To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health Care System. (Washington: National Academies Press, 1999).

3. Ten Cate O. Competency-based postgraduate medical education: Past, present and future. GMS J Med Educ. 2017 Nov 15. doi: 10.3205/zma001146.

4. Carraccio C, Englander R, Van Melle E, et al. Advancing competency-based medical education: A charter for clinician–educators. Acad Med. 2016;91(5):645-9.

5. 2016 NBME Clinical Clerkship Subject Examination Survey.

6. Mehta NB, Hull AL, Young JB, et al. Just imagine: New paradigms for medical education. Acad Med. 2013;88(10):1418-23.

7. Fazio SB, Ledford CH, Aronowitz PB, et al. Competency-based medical education in the internal medicine clerkship: A report from the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine Undergraduate Medical Education Task Force. Acad Med. 2018;93(3):421-7.

8. Ten Cate O, Scheele F. Competency-based postgraduate training: Can we bridge the gap between theory and clinical practice? Acad Med. 2007 Jun;82(6):542-7.

9. Dewa CS, Loong D, Bonato S, et al. The relationship between physician burnout and quality of healthcare in terms of safety and acceptability: A systematic review. BMJ Open. 2017. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2016-015141.

10. Hall LH, Johnson J, Watt I, et al. Healthcare Staff wellbeing, burnout, and patient safety: A systematic review. PLoS ONE. 2016. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0159015.

11. Salyers MP, Bonfils KA, Luther L, et al. The relationship between professional burnout and quality and safety in healthcare: A meta-analysis. Gen Intern Med. 2017 Apr; 32(4):475-82.

12. Desai SV, Asch DA, Bellini LM, et al. Education outcomes in a duty hour flexibility trial in internal medicine. N Engl J Med. 2018 378:1494-508.

13. Maslach C, Jackson SE, Leiter MP. Maslach burnout inventory manual. 3rd ed. (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1996).

14. Hammoud MM, Margo K, Christner JG, et al. Opportunities and challenges in integrating electronic health records into undergraduate medical education: A national survey of clerkship directors. Teach Learn Med. 2012;24(3):219-24.

15. White J, Anthony D, WinklerPrins V, et al. Electronic medical records, medical students, and ambulatory family physicians: A multi-institution study. Acad Med. 2017;92(10):1485-90.

16. Pageler NM, Friedman CP, Longhurst CA. Refocusing medical education in the EMR era. JAMA 2013;310(21):2249-50.

Box A

“Students may document services in the medical record. However, the teaching physician must verify in the medical record all student documentation or findings, including history, physical exam, and/or medical decision making. The teaching physician must personally perform (or re-perform) the physical exam and medical decision making activities of the E/M service being billed, but may verify any student documentation of them in the medical record, rather than re-documenting this work.”

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