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“Trust me, I’m a professor!” Evidence, medical schools & students

Cartoon of professorThere are just so many young people here. I’m at the 21st birthday meeting of an organization I got to help build, the Cochrane Collaboration. More about that later. But the young people are the most striking phenomenon.

They’re tweeting up a storm, of course. They’re bringing a blast of energy, enthusiasm, idealism and cutting edge scientific work with them. And many are keen on the Wikipedia initiatives we’ve been talking about.

But among the most exciting things are the signs of change in medical and health professional education that are bubbling up. You can see that already at vibrant organizations like the American Medical Student Association and so many wonderful student bloggers like those here at SciAm and at PLOS too.

Photo of Jimmy Volmink
Jimmy Volmink, Medical School Dean at Stellenbosch University

Let’s start with the professors, though. Jimmy Volmink, Dean of the Medical School at South Africa’s prestigious Stellenbosch University, gave an inspiring plenary talk. This is a photo of him in his office back home.

Volmink had pointed critical remarks to make about the state of policy on medical and health profession education. It is, he made clear, largely untouched by science. The Global Commission on the subject makes no mention of systematic reviews of evidence as a basis for its recommendations – nor the need for being evidence-based in teaching policy or practice of educational health professionals.

There’s a collaboration called BEME. Volmink said their goal – finding and analyzing the “Best Evidence for Medical and Health Professional Education” – is a critical one. As he says though, digging deep here means finding out that we really need to do more good science about how our clinicians and future researchers are being educated.

It’s an interesting area of study, too. Here’s an example of a BEME review. It’s picking through the studies on whether those audience response systems becoming ubiquitous at conferences and in teaching actually improve learning. They might. But spoiler alert: more research is needed!

We talked afterwards about what’s happening at Stellenbosch. He said they do “the usual stuff that education researchers do – qualitative and observational studies of the experiences of students.” But as are some other schools around the world, they’re also interested in whether the innovations they develop are working, an active area of work for Stellenbosch’s Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care. “The bridge,” says Volmink, “is teaching evidence-based healthcare.”

Logo for Students 4 Best EvidenceEnter the students. They’re well ahead of many of their teachers on this. A wonderful new network for students interested in evidence-based healthcare, called Students 4 Best Evidence, was the subject of much discussion and a poster here.

Students 4 Best Evidence was set in motion by a medical student in Syria, Norah Essali. She began a Facebook page. Among her network of contacts was Martin Burton, director of the UK Cochrane Centre. The Centre provided a nest for the fledgling network to roost, and has been seeding its development.

Key here is a quite gorgeous online resource (in which I’m lucky to have work of mine positively reviewed by students). The young people involved are fascinating – like Alice Buchan, Abu Abioye and David Carroll as well as Essali.

Alice isn’t here – lots of classes happening in Oxford at the moment – but she emailed, “There is the well-known aphorism that half of what you learn at medical school will be shown to be wrong or out of date within 5 years of your graduation – and maybe more evidence-based medical education can reduce that. At the very least, getting involved in EBM now sets a foundation for a whole career of evidence-based practice.” With a global network of like-minded students, she says, “we can learn a lot from one another.”

Holly Millward from the UK Cochrane Centre at her poster session at the Cochrane Colloquium in Quebec, with Javier Mayoral Campos

Holly Millward is throwing in heaps of her own energy and enthusiasm at the UK Cochrane Centre helping Students 4 Best Evidence get firmly established. Millward reported there are about 30 active students now in 8 countries. And that’s all before there’s even a formal launch.

So get in touch with them if you’re interested and send word about any student organizations you know. Feel free to add links to organizations in the comments below.

It’s a wildly reassuring development to see. Even if their professors might sometimes be slow to the evidence-based healthcare party, their students look well set to get them there.


You can follow live tweets from the Cochrane Colloquium via #cochranequebec

The abstracts of the meeting are online here. The Collaboration published an anniversary collection of methods articles about systematic reviews here.

The Statistically-Funny cartoon is my original work (Creative Commons, non-commercial, share-alike license), as is the photo from the Cochrane Colloquium. Jimmy Volmink provided his photo from Stellenbosch.

The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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