More Food for Thought

Dr. Eberhard Renner
Head – Department of Internal Medicine

Medical training is a somewhat funny hybrid: part studying biomedical sciences, part practical learning through an apprenticeship. The former requires books, lectures, small group session and the like, the latter gaining practical experience by doing things, and being allowed – within reason – to make mistakes. A pianist will not achieve mastery just by studying the notes; knowing the latest facts from reading publications maybe necessary, but is not sufficient to become an expert physician.

It goes without saying, that it is stressful having to play a piano concerto without being confident to get comfortably through the most difficult passages; it is stressful to practice medicine without being confident to apply comfortably one’s knowledge in a difficult situation. And only if there is this technical mastery the pianist can focus on interpretation, the physician on the interaction with the individual patient (and family) in front of him/her.

On the other hand, once one has technically mastered it, playing the same tune over and over again will at some point become boring routine and negatively impact the quality of the pianist’s interpretation. Boring routine after serving in the same role for many years, may similarly impact, at least potentially, the quality of a physician’s interaction with his/her patients, families, trainees, colleagues, and/or other health care professionals. 

Training of pattern recognition and of decision making reflexes requires physician learners to be exposed to a sufficient volume of clinical situations. While what represents a sufficient volume may vary a bit between individuals, the learning curve is a well-established phenomenon, not only in interventional disciplines, and depends on case volume. Simulation may help cutting the required case volume down, but cannot fully replace real life experience and does not readily pertain to all aspects/areas of medicine.

The total duration of our residency training has not changed in decades. However, the exposure time to clinical case volumes has steadily decreased due to introduction of things such as regulations (i.e. shortening) of trainee working hours incl. compensation for on call time, and mandatory formal teaching activities such as academic half days. The implementation of CBD will, at best, not aggravate this further – although the jury is still out.

I am not arguing to turn the wheel back to the times when interns spent every second night in-house on call and worked 48 (or more) straight hours through. I have also no illusion that anybody would want to pay for prolonging training to make up for the lost clinical exposure time.

That said, maybe we should simply accept that after residency training (and even after a fellowship), additional supervised – albeit perhaps more loosely – exposure time is required to gain the experience necessary to comfortably function as an independent consultant or attending who is competent in all aspects of one’s specialty? Maybe we should start discussing models in which the clinical roles of junior and more senior faculty are no longer the same, but rather distinct, the more senior faculty member serving as a clinical mentor for a few junior ones. In such a model, the more senior faculty member would no longer be the primary attending on a ward, but rather serve as resource for and round once or twice weekly with junior attendings on their wards. Maybe this would not only help easing junior faculty into their new position, but also make it more interesting again for the more senior ones, who would take on a new challenge after routine starts to sink in and burn-out lures around the corner? Such models exist elsewhere; their feasibility in our funding model may be worth exploring – some food for thought.     

One thought on “More Food for Thought”

  1. How would these two roles be reconciled with current physician manpower shortages and a health bureaucracy where the luxury of having senior and junior attending physicians may be viewed as redundant?

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