Frances Dixon on month two at medical school

We are well into the first term now, and we are starting to do some modules that are not just straight science. One of these is an epidemiology module. I was a little apprehensive about this, as someone had told me that epidemiology was “just health statistics”. But when we started, I realised it wasn’t nearly as boring as I had expected (no offence to any epidemiologists). 

I think that studying the cause and spread of diseases is not only vitally important, but actually interesting too. This module also included things such as study design and critical appraisal of papers, which has already come in useful in different areas of the course, and will continue to be useful, probably for the rest of my career.

We also learnt about AIDS as a case study for how a new disease progresses from one or two cases to an epidemic, and how it is researched etc. This was interesting as it showed how being a doctor sometimes involves a certain degree of detective work. I also never knew that before it was called AIDS, it was known as gay-related immune deficiency, which seems ridiculous now, but presumably perfect acceptable at the time.

We have also been studying sociology in relation to medicine. This is interesting because it shows that illness is caused by many things and should be treated as such. Factors such as social class appear to have such an effect on someone’s health. Also, how different people view illness is a fascinating topic. As part of this module we have been watching The Up Series, a series of documentary films by Michael Apted following the lives of 14 British school children, starting in 1964 and filming a new instalment every seven years. This series is brilliant as it is so unlike anything I have ever seen before. One doesn’t often get the chance to see a person as a child and then watch them developing into adults and following their lives.

Some of the people have been so unpredictable. There is one girl who had a fairly privileged upbringing, private schools etc, and I fully expected her to go on to a university, maybe Oxbridge. Instead, in the film aged 21, she explains how she left school at 16 and basically ran off to Paris for two years. In the later films though, she settled down and seemed to regret this decision. There was another boy from the Yorkshire Dales who, aged 7, I thought had learning difficulties. I think I just misinterpreted his shyness though, as he ended up studying physics at Oxford. I would recommend watching this series to anyone who hasn’t.

As I never had a television when I was growing up I missed all these the first time around, but I am currently searching for the DVDs as I would like to watch the rest of them. I am already looking forward to the next instalment in 2012!

Another of our modules is one on communication. For this we just had lectures and workshops at the start, but last week we had interviews with simulated patients. These were volunteers who came and talked to us so we could take a history from them.

Obviously, at this stage in the course we don’t have enough knowledge to diagnose them or give medical advice, it was just to practise talking to people. We had five minutes to speak to each person and afterwards they would give us feedback.

Previously we have done roleplays within our group, but it was good to have a genuine stranger in front of you as it was easier to treat them as a patient, and not just one of your classmates pretending. It amazes me that these people would happily give up their morning to come and talk to a bunch of medical students, but I suppose I just underestimate the kindness of people. I was talking to one interviewee about why he would do something like that, and he just said that he has got so much out of the medical profession and wanted to give something back. Admirable!

I suppose also it shows the trust and respect the general public have for doctors and the medical profession. It’s inspiring really, but also slightly worrying as it’s a lot to live up to.

Frances Dixon is a medical student at Imperial College School of Medicine, London.