The redundancy of being called a “Medical Educator”

Incredibly, since I have been in my new position for over 6 months, this morning was my first lecture (but I use the term loosely) to the residents here. It was ostensibly on “infectious rashes and infestations” – but I entitled it “Nasty skin infections – cos there really aren’t any nice ones”.

It was apparently well received.

I have a knack for teaching. I’m not saying that because I think I have a knack – other people have told me so. I have various awards to show for it. I have people ask me to teach, and I assume it’s not just to hear my awesome accent. It has a history going back to high-school where my friends would ask for help with their homework. I had the annoying habit of not giving them the answers – rather I would try to help them figure it out for themselves – responding to their questions with questions of my own. I don’t remember whether I did this out of a sense of mentorship – the benign guidance of a sage helping them to reach their potential – or out of sheer bloody-mindedness and for my own amusement. I do know I simply didn’t think it was “fair” that I had to figure it out for myself but they wanted the answer simply given to them. I can’t blame them – we all want that at some point.

In medical school I found myself struggling in a competitive, highly academic and esoteric system which I was pretty unprepared for. I remember writing a scathing review of the teaching I had received there for my college magazine. I “dropped out” of one tutorial class to do self-study instead, and brought my grade up two points as a result (on a 4 point scale, that’s not bad…). I laid down the mental framework for how I wanted to be taught, and applied that to others where I could. I was lucky to be asked to supervise (teach, in Cambridge lingo) genetics and virology to two of the university colleges for two years. Ironically I found myself as a flawed part of the very system I had complained about – flawed in that I was teaching without any training in how to teach!

It was in my residency however where I really found a role for myself in teaching. My wife tells me that I “like telling people how it is”. She may be right. In any case, there are ample opportunities for teaching medical students, junior residents, peers and colleagues during the years that you yourself are getting educated and trained in medicine. I developed my own style – honed through trial and error, practice and observation. My research years had taught me a lot about how to teach and how NOT to teach effectively – and also removed whatever fears of public speaking I might have harbored. We all know that “teachers teach how they were taught, not how they were taught to teach”, but I made a conscious effort to TRY to teach using techniques that I knew to be effective, even if I hadn’t experienced them directly. I cherry-picked those I liked and adapted them to my own personality.

The techniques weren’t all that became developed – my repertoire of content grew and was refined. For most of the topics I was asked to teach about I got to the point where I could grab a pen and paper, or whiteboard, and put together an interactive case-based 1-hour teaching session with no notice.

After today’s success I thought a little about my role as a medical educator, and I remembered something.

Doctor. We all know what it means. Or do we?

It means “Teacher“.

The word “Doctor” has been hijacked by the medical profession (and other related careers), where in fact it was intended to mean someone with sufficient learning in a subject area to teach others. Technically in fact, most medical degrees aren’t “Doctorate” level at all, since they are “first degrees” in medicine, regardless of whatever degrees a person may have in another subject. My own medical degree reflects that: MBBChir, Medicinae Baccalaureus, Baccalaureus Chirurgiae – Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery. An MD in the UK (and almost everywhere except the US) is a true post-graduate degree with a research dissertation.

Ironically the medical profession seems to have forgotten that. Medical education in the US is an oft-neglected role, poorly reimbursed, run by those with a passion for teaching while feeding off the table scraps that their procedure-driven peers feed to them through the teaching hospital income. Until recently, there were few real incentives to teach or contribute to medical education – promotion and bonuses were linked to clinical revenues and research grant dollars. I am fortunate to work in one of the (apparently) few places that does place a value on medical education such that I can use it for career advancement rather than a hobby in my spare time. People go into medicine for all sorts of reasons – to help people, to heal, to make money, to do cool procedures and surgeries – but I doubt very many go into medicine to teach.

And yet they carry the title of “Teacher”. My own career track is that of a “medical educator” – which seems to me to be a redundant phrase, if you think about it. The fact that we have to label medical educators as something special shows how we have drifted away from the true meaning of “Doctor”.

To go back to our roots, we should ALL be educators. Every year there is a wave of students leaving their education and entering training, and a wave of residents leaving training and entering the real world. These men and women need guidance. Beyond the academics and pearls of wisdom, they need mentoring, career and business advice, insight into work-life balance and their options beyond the ivory towers. They need to know how to recognize meningococcemia, but they also need to know how to get a parent to recognize it over the telephone. They need to know when to admit a patient, but also how to bill for that admission. They need to know how to convince a skeptical teenager of a treatment plan, and how to negotiate a partnership contract.

Physicians don’t have to work at a medical school to teach – they can contribute to career fairs, social media, newsletters, take on elective students in their practice…anything is possible. There are literally hundreds of thousands of years’ of experience out there waiting to be tapped…

So I urge my medical colleagues – reflect on this. Remember your title, your role in history and the potential you have for leaving a legacy of medical practice in your wake, in the form of the next generation of Medical Doctors.

As Hippocrates himself said:

“…I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher’s sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws…”

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  1. #1 by R.C. on April 21, 2012 - 08:46

    Very nice post. Your passion for knowledge, both acquiring it and passing it down to others, is admirable. The ability to be skilled at both is quite rare.
    “Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue.”
    ~Charles Darwin

  2. #2 by Meg Malcolm (@EMR_RN) on April 21, 2012 - 09:02

    Well said. Now if some will listen no- not listen but truely hear the message.

  3. #3 by Dr. Iftikhar Qayum on November 20, 2012 - 08:31

    I agree with the redundancy part… it looks to be our future, brought on by ourselves, as we invent gadgets for easy communication and hand them to one and all, whether they know how to properly use them or not. “Education” has lost its meaning, giving way to
    ‘popular knowledge” taken to mean an educated person. Unless we reinvoke and reinvigorate true education, we are bound to suffer the idiocy of the “literate illiterate:.

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