Teaching in medicine – what would Jesus do?

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I recently had the slightly strange experience of running some seminars for GP Tutors at my old medical school. It was the first time that I had returned there (apart from a brief evening visit for our year’s thirtieth anniversary) for 37 years. Although I believe my alma-mater was no worse than most others at the time I trained there in the early seventies, I couldn’t help reflecting on how my own discouraging experience of medical education had motivated me to pursue a career in teaching medicine. I was determined to be a better teacher and role-model than I had experienced as a student and junior doctor.

The basic ethos, then, seemed to be that the best way to make students learn was by fear, humiliation and intimidation. The role-models were mostly those of arrogance, ambition and ego-centricity. As a Christian who had entered medical training believing that I was joining a caring profession that aspired to put the service of others before self, this was profoundly disillusioning. Thankfully things have generally improved since then. What we know about adult learning has been incorporated appropriately into the curricula of most British medical schools. General Practice training (with which I’ve been involved for nearly thirty years) has pioneered many creative, learner-centred and interactive teaching methods that have become established in both undergraduate and post-graduate programmes across the country.

At the heart of these are concepts that are essentially Christian in origin: that the patient is a person who deserves the consultation process to be centred on them. The doctor must understand their ideas, concerns and expectations and treat them compassionately and with due regard to their dignity as a human being.  Consequently (and this is a key point), medical teachers must teach their students and residents in the same way, with respect, compassion and understanding. They must also be aware that they are (like it or not) role-models for their students, and if they treat their patients (and students) with kindness and consideration, they are likely to inspire their learners to do the same.

In Jesus, we have the ultimate example of the great physician and teacher. It is fascinating to read the Gospel accounts of his teaching sessions, observing not just the content but the methods He used to teach. Unsurprisingly we find he told stories (ie used case-based teaching), asked questions, challenged attitudes, pointed to concrete examples and was unfailingly compassionate towards his learners, chiding them occasionally when they failed to show the attitudes He was modelling.

As Christians, Jesus serves as our example, not just as a physician but also as a teacher. It has been famously said that, ‘A teacher… can influence the lives of many times more patients through his or her students than through a career of surgeries or clinics.’1    From this perspective has grown the ministry of the Christian medical education charity PRIME Partnerships in International Medical Education that has had the privilege of teaching Godly values (as well as good evidence based practice) in medical schools and institutions all over the world, particularly in resource poor countries.

As Christian doctors, if we’re involved in teaching, let us never forget the importance of what we’re doing and the role-model we’re providing for our students. As in my case, the influence of their medical teachers early in their careers may stay with them throughout their professional lives.

Smith BH Edwards E Murchie (2005) SAPC: scotching the myths. British Journal of General Practice  55: 513 (316)

Posted by Dr Huw Morgan
Executive and Senior Desk Holder – PRIME, and CMF Board Member



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