On the smell of an oily rag: risks for teaching in a resource poor environment

From an educational perspective there has been much talk of the benefit of learning in the clinical setting.  In addition, the increase in the numbers of “learners” across the board and the shorter stays in hospitals has also created an imperative to divest some of the learning to the community context. As the numbers of students and registrars increase there appear to be expectations that more and more doctors will be trained in that generic environment called “the community.” But like many things transferred to the community, funds rarely follow.   The positives of learning in the community setting are huge but there are also challenges, especially where community practice is largely private practice. 

The benefits include the broad clinical scope and the chance to see earlier presentations and undifferentiated symptoms instead of the already diagnosed and streamed.  It also creates opportunities for experiencing prevention, continuity and seeing patients in their broader social settings.  And much more.  However, how do we ensure equivalence of clinical exposure across disparate settings and supervisors, maintain quality control across an environment over which we have little control generally and how do we generate enthusiasm for teaching when taking time out to teach is a financial loss?  I think there is general agreement that expectations are increasing but support, resourcing and funding are not keeping up (in Australia).

Resources for medical education are variable.  When there is a new medical school opened to great fanfare there is often a welcome flush of funding.  In many instances the medical school proclaims a new approach to medical education and there may be a well-resourced medical education unit – for a while at least.  On the other hand, teaching within the hospital environment can also be very variable and dependent on local policies, funding and priorities.  Often there is time allocated (in theory) for the education and training which is written into many of the relevant standards for post graduate training.  Each country has its own systems.  The funding pool may come from universities, the national government or local health networks and those who are in training are often buffeted between systems operating in silos.

Doctors are supposed to be teachers, or so it is maintained when the etymological origin is noted in the Latin verb “docere”.  In the middle ages it meant “learned person” and “doctor of the church” and I guess we have moved quite a way from that.  There is also a handy assumption that if you are a good doctor you will be a good teacher or that it is something that is easy to pick up along the way and doesn’t require many extra skills.  And, of course, in practice, the demands of clinical professional development necessarily compete with those of teaching skills.  So how many doctors are indeed teachers?  It’s impossible to know really but certainly in the hospital context there is an expectation that the more senior doctors teach the more junior ones.  In General Practice, functioning as a small business, it is a choice as to whether to take it on.  Does everyone go into medicine or general practice expecting to teach?  And what is the motivation for teaching? The status of a teaching role varies across different systems – have a think about this – and this is perhaps reflected in the priority given to professional development in this area.   This has been brought increasingly to my attention as I am working on some modules on clinical teaching and supervisio

So how do you teach effectively in an increasingly resource poor and yet increasingly managerial environment?  Individuals, as always, squeeze it in to busy days while trying to maintain quality and funders and managers focus on efficiency. Do we put up with mediocre and variable, will it become bureaucratised or do we combat it by paying well and maintaining the standards or by somehow creating a supportive community of practice?  It is indeed possible that we are relying on a rapidly drying up source of good will and altruism.  GPs can just say “I’ve had enough” when the paperwork escalates or the resources decrease beyond a tipping point. 

Obviously institutions and policy makers will continue to take the most economic course possible as their own resources are stretched but those making the decisions need to know that the way the organisation functions may make the difference between enthused and engaged teachers and dispirited ones ready to give up.  A few “ifs” to consider: if policy makers want positive outcomes for patients and the community; and if the quality of the education influences the quality of the professional at the end of training; and if you want a sustainable educator workforce then perhaps you need to be looking at the implications of this and advocating at various levels.

In many parts of the health system, space is not made for teaching and training and in others, GP teaching is not always taken seriously.  Value can be added by providing appropriate support and professional development but it is a challenge.  Efforts can be made to make the total environment more positive for learning and utilise the whole health care team.  This blogpost really has no answers at the moment and is more of a warning. In some ways it will be up to the next generation.  There will always be enthusiastic and brilliant teachers but will their efforts be sustainable?  Will it be a rewarding career option?  Will it be enjoyable?

How will the next generation be trained – and will they indeed be trained rather than educated?

A few rhetorical questions: Do you value your educators and supervisors? Do you know them? Do you enthuse them? Do you support them?  These are places to start.

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