PHM19: Mitigating the harm we cause learners in medical education


PHM19 session

Mitigating the harm we cause learners in medical education


Benjamin Kinnear, MD, MEd

Andrew Olson, MD

Matthew Kelleher, MD, MEd

Session summary

Dr. Kinnear, Dr. Olson, and Dr. Kelleher expertly led this TED-Talk style session at Pediatric Hospital Medicine 2019, convincing the audience that medical educators persistently harm the learners under their supervision.

Dr. Erin King

Dr. Kinnear, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, opened the session noting that the path through medical school presently has a perverse focus on grades as a necessary achievement. As an expert in competency-based assessment, he asserted that the current learner assessment strategy is neither valid nor robust enough to indicate actual competence. Summary assessments presented throughout medical school are lacking continuous constructive feedback, leaving early residents in a state of shock when receiving corrective or negative assessments. He also noted that structurally many rotations create both team and patient discontinuity, leaving the learner with a feeling of detachment and limited ownership of the human patient under his/her/their care.

Dr. Olson of the University of Minnesota next described the need for the USMLE STEP 1 exam to be transitioned to a pass/fail endeavor. He cited the error of measurement of 24 points (i.e., the same test taker could have a 220 one day and a 244 the next) and the potential loss of valuable rotation experiences during the several-month period of intense study. He challenged audience members to complete an esoteric exam question to prove his point and asserted that many learners are lacking in humility, communication skills, and professionalism, and seek only the honors designation on rotations. He likened the experience of medical students on rotation and residents on service weeks to a series of first dates and affirmed the value of longitudinal learner-educator relationships.

Further, he outlined the detachment of learners from patient outcomes, demonstrated by frequent hand-offs and rotation transitions. Dr Olson also cited medical pedagogy as failing to meet the known needs of adult learners to engage in deliberate progressive practice, reflective practice, or to use concepts such as spacing or interleaving to reinforce knowledge.

Dr. Kelleher, also of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, ended the session by taking those in attendance on an imagined “what-if” journey where each of the wrongs currently done to early learners in medical education were corrected. This included engagement in daily reflection (5 minutes at a time), reporting system issues on rounds that had failed the patient, presenting learners with a CV of attending failures to reinforce the imperfection that is a reality in medicine, praising learners when they admit “they don’t know the answer” to a question posed on rounds, completing assessments in real time in the learner’s presence, rounding until specific feedback can be identified for each learner on the team, having a kiosk on each floor where ANY team member could provide feedback to learners, using cognitive science on rounds for teaching (i.e., Socratic) rather than pimping, modeling interprofessional teamwork daily using a culture of vulnerability rather than infallibility (i.e., airline culture), and by encouraging the attending to care for patients or complete tasks independently, showing the value of education over service and model ideal family-centered communication with the team.

One might wonder, if all of the above were accomplished at the request of our talented presenters, would a pass/fail USMLE world where medical education was learner centered and filled with longitudinal relationships with teams and patients, and outcomes were connected to education produce more engaged, knowledgeable, and holistic physicians? According to this team of presenters, yes.

Key takeaways

• Current processes in medical education are harming today’s adult learner.

• Harms include reliance on numerical rather than competency-based assessment, fragmented learning environments, focus on perfection rather than improvement, ignorance of updates in cognitive science for instructional methodology, and individualist rather than team-based learning.

• Reforms are needed to remedy harms in health professional education, including making USMLE pass/fail, creating a learning-centered rather than service-centered residency environment, encouraging longitudinal relationships between teacher and learner, and connecting education to clinical outcomes.

Dr. King is associate program director, University of Minnesota Pediatric Residency Program, Minneapolis.

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