A Reflection on Teaching and Learning Culture in UK Emergency Medicine
One of the things that most amuses my school teacher friends is my insistence on referring to postgraduate educational opportunities as ‘teaching sessions’, e.g. ’I’ve got regional teaching this afternoon’. I’m not alone here in referring to ‘teaching’ – it’s common amongst doctors and medical students alike.
And an all too commonly heard moan for doctors, (I’ve done it myself, many times), is that they aren’t getting enough ‘teaching.’ At the recent College of Emergency Medicine and British Medical Association joint seminar held as part of the Emergency Medicine Trainees Association 2014 conference a recurring theme was a perceived need for more shop-floor teaching.
This is all anecdotal of course, but there is very little evidence out there regarding trainees views on this topic. The GMC National Training Survey[i] is a good place to start, but when you look at the actual questions and how the scores are calculated, it becomes clear that a score of 70-ish for local teaching (which it has been steadily since 2012) means very little, being calculated as it is from a combination of questions like ‘How many hours a week do you receive local specialty specific training?’ (What does this mean? Shop floor supervision? Small group seminars?), and ‘Who carries out local specialty specific training?’ (Senior doctors scores highly here but is that a true marker of quality? Does being a Consultant automatically make you an excellent teacher?) We are also asked to rate the quality of our teaching sessions, but against what standard? In summary, this survey is not an especially valid way of evaluating the quality of a teaching programme.
What do we actually mean when we say ‘teaching’? As postgraduate learners, we have a wealth of opportunities available to us, from organised lecture programmes and seminars, to shop-floor supervision to simulation courses.
Calling these varied learning opportunities ‘teaching’ turns them into passive activities and implies the spoon feeding of facts and transfer of knowledge direct from our teachers to our brains. It absolves us of our responsibility as learners to make the most of them.
The complaint of ‘not enough teaching’ is generally used to refer to shop floor learning, where a trainee is directly supervised doing something by a senior, (for example leading a team or performing a procedure), hence the regular comparisons with the one-to-one training that junior anaesthetists receive. That juniors in emergency medicine have senior supervision available for absolutely every single patient that they see seems to pass us by. That senior anaesthetic trainees practice independently for much of the time without constant one-to-one supervision also seems to escape us.
In actual fact, we do receive a significant amount of this kind of teaching. In the departments I have worked in, there has been consultant presence on the shop-floor for the vast majority of time in-hours. My current department has consultants on the floor for 16 hours a day. Supervision is therefore available to me for the vast majority of my working hours. Are we counting those ‘Can I just ask you about?’ and ‘What do you think of this?’ as being ‘teaching’?
As well as this, the College of Emergency Medicine has an exhaustive list of workplace based assessments that we are all required to complete. They are near universally despised, yet they represent direct hands on supervision opportunities, or to put it another way; ‘teaching’. Why then do we hate these assessments? Rather than seeing them as irritating tick box forms, can we reframe them as empowering us to request direct training and feedback on our performance?
And what exactly do we want ‘teaching’ on/about? If you’re a surgeon, then understandably you want to spend lots of time performing surgery, learning the craft of each procedure. If you’re a gastroenterologist, then the hours spent as a general medical registrar probably seem less relevant to your career compared to the endoscopy lists and clinics. This just doesn’t apply in emergency medicine. As an EM doctor, every single patient that we see on every single shift is a potential learning opportunity. We cannot just see the critically ill – our speciality is far broader than this. We need to be happy with the bread and butter of our specialty, not just the jam. Head injuries, elderly patients with falls, acute confusion, intoxicated patients both drugs and alcohol, febrile children, vague chest pain, dizziness, non-specific abdominal pain, deliberate self-harm, red eyes…It’s all on our curriculum and forms the vast majority of our workload[ii],[iii].
As senior emergency medicine doctors, we do not need to be directly supervised seeing these patients, but we should not dismiss them as non-learning or pure service provision events. There is no substitute for seeing large volumes of real patients and building up a bank of experience. Experience is what tells you that the ‘drunk’ patient with confusion has a subdural haematoma, or that the ‘back pain’ is an abdominal aortic aneurysm beginning to rupture (but experience is not everything – see below!) And sending a patient home reassured, happy and without what they thought came for (scan, antibiotics, xray) is as much an art as running a really slick arrest call.
Also on our curriculum are a whole range of managerial and leadership skills. Whether we like it or not, managing patient flow, supervising juniors and maintaining an overview of the department will form part of our job as ED Consultants. While we might prefer to be in resus seeing that interesting trauma, learning how to run the floor is essential, and can only be learned through practice. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be asked to run the show while the boss is in resus doing the fun stuff sometimes? It all depends on whether you see doing that as a key part of your role and important for you to practice or not.
And practice is the key word here. ‘Practicing’ medicine is what we are licensed to do. We cannot learn our craft solely through our computer screens, high fidelity simulators or textbooks. It is widely believed that to become expert in something, approximately 10 years of practice is required[iv]. Yet many people play sports or musical instruments for years without achieving mastery. Experience alone is not enough:
‘You have not had thirty years’ experience, Mrs Grindle-Jones,’ he says witheringly. ‘You have had one year’s experience 30 times.'[v]
Deliberate practice is required in order to become expert[vi]. Deliberate practice means thinking about what we are doing with each and every patient. It’s about seeking out feedback, following up cases, reading around. About thinking ‘Next time, I’ll do that a bit differently’. The responsibility for this lies with us. Our teachers are there to assist us in this process, not to do it for us.
I believe it is time for us to take control of our own learning. Complaining that we’re not getting enough ‘teaching’ isn’t good enough. We are surrounded by learning opportunities and it is up to us to make the most of them. What do you think?
[i] GMC National Training Survey, General Medical Council; 2014
http://www.gmc-uk.org/education/national_summary_reports.asp (accessed 30/7/14)
[ii] The Older Person in the Accident and Emergency Department, British Geriatrics Society; 2008
[iii] Health and Social Care Information Centre, Focus on Accident and Emergency, UK Government Statistical Service; 2013
[iv] Ericsson, KA. The Road to Excellence, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates;1996:10
[v] Carr, JL. The Harpole Report, Quince Tree Press ; 1972: 128
[vi] Ericsson, KA. The Road to Excellence, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates;1996: 21, 33