opinion

Medical schools signal readiness for revolution

A robust response to an AMA initiative underscores the fact that medical schools recognize the need for a necessary update of how they educate physicians.

Posted March 18, 2013.

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Educator Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report evaluating American and Canadian medical schools is generally credited with transforming medical education into its current modern age. Flexner shined a light on the importance of a more rigorous education so that future physicians could be trained in — and have a sharp mind for — the rapid scientific and technological advances coming out of the Industrial Revolution.

Over the last decade, numerous studies have looked at one question: Should the Flexner model be updated so medical education can adapt to the rapid scientific and technological advances of today’s information revolution? The answer is uniformly, yes, and the call for change isn’t coming only from medical and educational observers. Recently, striking evidence has surfaced that the schools themselves are ready to make a change — one as revolutionary as anything Flexner envisioned.

That evidence is their overwhelming response to a $10 million initiative by the American Medical Association called “Accelerating Change in Medical Education.” Before a Feb. 15 deadline, 115 out of 141 U.S. medical schools sent five-page concept proposals explaining what transformative changes they would like to make in teaching future physicians. Changes might include new ways of teaching and assessing core competencies, or more of a focus on patient safety or quality improvement. The proposals reflect a changing health care delivery system transformed by technology so that the skill of finding and applying information is as important — or more so — than memorizing it. Of those proposals, 20 to 30 will be chosen to write a longer request for a proposal that is the equivalent of applying for a National Institute of Health grant. From there, eight to 10 schools will be announced at the AMA Annual Meeting in June as sharing in the $10 million to help implement their ideas.

The AMA helped bring Flexner’s report to bear, with its Continuing Medical Education division. It rated medical schools at the time and solicited the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching — which chose Flexner — for further efforts in improving physician education. This was at a time that many schools’ quality was poor, and there were few, if any, standards for training doctors.

The AMA again has stepped to the forefront, not only with its $10 million offer but also with other efforts to promote initiatives to improve education, publishing papers on change in medical education and organizing high-level discussions in which experts talk about what the future of medical schools should be.

But unlike 100 years ago, when substandard schools closed or fired faculty to catch up to Flexner’s standards, the relationship between medical schools and agents of change is markedly more symbiotic.

Schools already are part of the discussion about accelerating the pace of instruction to three years instead of four, as a way to train more doctors and confront the current crisis of a looming physician shortage.

They have recognized the impact that the Internet and mobile technology have had as a means for doctors to quickly and easily review treatment guidelines and look up information on diseases, pharmaceuticals and procedures. Business tracks have been added at some schools to help future physicians learn about how to manage the complex insurance and financial environment they will face. There are now programs where physicians are taught how to work not only in an individual practice setting but also as leaders and members of teams that stretch across different professions, locations and practice settings.

The AMA’s “Accelerating Change in Medical Education” program indeed will fund individual schools with particularly compelling ideas, schools that a panel of experts will choose to reflect a variety of regions and projects. But the goal is not merely to promote transformations at a few schools. By including those schools in a medical education consortium, by sharing their ideas with all medical schools, and also by sharing other worthy ideas from schools that weren’t selected, the hope is that the AMA program helps facilitate creative thinking and out-of-the-box ideas across the spectrum of medical education.

The reason the AMA emphasizes “accelerating” change is that incremental changes aren’t enough to ensure that future doctors get the training they need in a world in which rapid business, population and technological changes have made being a doctor a much more dynamic profession. These have to be systemic changes, as bold and far-reaching in our time as they were in the wake of the Flexner report.

Flexner’s triumph stemmed from an era when there were many medical schools unworthy of the name. This next revolution starts from strength, solid opportunities and a well-demonstrated willingness to embrace change.

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External links

“Accelerating change in medical education,” American Medical Association (link)

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