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The Changing Landscape of Medical Education in a Pandemic

In the early 1900s, he introduced the natural method of teaching, positing that student exposure to patients and experience over time ensured that physicians in training would become competent doctors.1 His influence led to the current structure of medical education, which includes conventional third-year clerkships and time-limited rotations

For one, the traditional system is failing to adequately prepare physicians to provide safe and complex care. Reports, such as the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) “To Err is Human,” describe a high rate of preventable errors, highlighting considerable room for improvement in training the next generation of physicians.

Meanwhile, trainees are still largely being deemed ready for the workforce by length of training completed (for example, completion of four-year medical school) rather than a skill set distinctly achieved. The system leaves little flexibility to individualize learner goals, which is significant given some students and residents take shorter or longer periods of time to achieve proficiency. In addition, learner outcomes can be quite variable, as we have all experienced.

The methods of assessment may not adequately evaluate trainees’ skill sets. For example, most clerkships still rely heavily on the shelf exam as a surrogate for medical knowledge. As such, learners may conclude that testing performance trumps development of other professional skills. Efforts are being made to revamp evaluation systems to reflect mastery (such as Entrustable Professional Activities, or EPAs) toward competencies. Still, many institutions continue to rely on faculty evaluations that often reflect interpersonal dynamics rather than true critical thinking skills.

Recognizing the above limitations, many educators have called for changing to outcome-based, or competency-based, training (CBME). CBME targets attainment of skills in performing concrete critical clinical activities,8 such as identifying unstable patients, providing initial management, and obtaining help. To be successful, supervisors must directly observe trainees, assess demonstrated skills, and provide feedback about progress.

Unfortunately, this considerable investment of time and effort is often poorly compensated. Additionally, unanswered questions remain. For example, how will residency programs continue to challenge physicians deemed “competent” in a required skill? What happens when a trainee is deficient and not appropriately progressing in a required skill? Is flexible training time part of the future of medical education? While CBME appears to be a more effective method of education, questions like these must be addressed during implementation.

Beyond the fact that hours worked cannot be used as a surrogate for competency, excessive unregulated work hours can be detrimental to learners, their supervisors, and patients. In 2003, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) implemented a major change in medical education: duty hour limitations. The premise that sleep-deprived providers are more prone to error is well established. However, controversy remains as to whether these regulations translate into improved patient care and provider well-being. Studies published following the ACGME change demonstrate increasing burnout among physicians, which has led some educators to explore the potential relationship between burnout and duty hour restrictions.

The recent “iCOMPARE” trial, which compared internal medicine (IM) residencies with “standard duty-hour” policies to those with “flexible” policies (that is, they did not specify limits on shift length or mandatory time off between shifts), supported a lack of correlation between hours worked and burnout.12 Researchers administered the Maslach Burnout Inventory to all participants.13 While those in the “flexible hours” arm reported greater dissatisfaction with the effect of the program on their personal lives, both groups reported significant burnout, with interns recording high scores in emotional exhaustion (79% in flexible programs vs. 72% in standard), depersonalization (75% vs. 72%), and lack of personal accomplishment (71% vs. 69%).

Disturbingly, these scores were not restricted to interns but were present in all residents. The good news? Limiting duty hours does not cause burnout. On the other hand, it does not protect from burnout. Trainee burnout appears to transcend the issue of hours worked. Clearly, we need to address the systemic flaws in our work environments that contribute to this epidemic. Nationwide, educators and organizations are continuing to define causes of burnout and test interventions to improve wellness.

A final front of change in medical education worth mentioning is the use of the electronic medical record (EMR). While the EMR has improved many aspects of patient care, its implementation is associated with decreased time spent with patients and parallels the rise in burnout. Another unforeseen consequence has been its disruptive impact on medical student documentation. A national survey of clerkship directors found that, while 64% of programs allowed students to use the EMR, only two-thirds of those programs permitted students to document electronically.

Many institutions limit student access because of either liability concerns or the fact that student notes cannot be used to support medical billing. Concerning workarounds among preceptors, such as logging in students under their own credentials to write notes, have been identified.15 Yet medical students need to learn how to document a clinical encounter and maintain medical records. Authoring notes engages students, promotes a sense of patient ownership, and empowers them to feel like essential team members. Participating in the EMR also allows for critical feedback and skill development.

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