Appalling medical school teaching

Even something as basic as anatomy stumps medical students -- but you can be sure that they are well up on "cultural sensitivity" and the like

Anatomy teaching has been cut back so much that medical students have been unable to identify important body parts. In some cases, students who volunteered for a catch-up crash course in anatomy could not answer when asked to identify specific anatomical structures, such as major blood vessels, in partially dissected human specimens. In a few cases, students responded with fictitious names of body parts that did not exist.

The seven-week course in full-body dissection, run earlier this year at the University of Sydney, proved wildly popular with the students who completed it -- and had a dramatic effect on their anatomical knowledge. The students were tested again halfway through and at the conclusion of the course, and both times the 29 students achieved almost perfect scores.

The findings, by a team led by George Ramsey-Stewart, professor of surgical anatomy at the University of Sydney, promise to rekindle controversy over the scaling back of anatomy tuition nationwide.

Detailing the results in today's edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, Professor Ramsey-Stewart called for a standard national curriculum for anatomy -- something resisted by most medical school deans -- that included dissection. He also called for "barrier" assessments, requiring students to gain a pass mark before being able to progress in their degree course.

Structures some students failed to identify correctly included the abdominal aorta -- the biggest artery in the abdomen -- and the sciatic nerve, the longest and widest nerve in humans that runs from the lower back into the leg.

Professor Ramsey-Stewart said while it would be wrong to make too much of the students' poor results in the first tests, it was nevertheless "of concern" that one-quarter of all the answers given by the students betrayed worrying gaps in their knowledge. "It's a problem for most universities . . . I hear from my anatomical and surgical colleagues that it's across the board," he said.

However, he said the students involved were too advanced in their course to have benefited from curriculum changes introduced by the University of Sydney in 2007, when anatomy teaching hours were trebled.

Doctor and researcher Steven Craig, who in March published a study that found teaching hours for anatomy varied from as few as 56 hours in one medical school to 560 hours -- said improvements in anatomy teaching to date were mostly "a patch-up job". "These sorts of (voluntary dissection) courses are fantastic -- for the students who get to do them," Dr Craig said. "But if they can only accept 30 of the 250 students (it needs expanding)."

Australian Medical Students Association president Robert Marshall rejected the call for a national curriculum, and said such studies ignored the fact that much anatomy tuition was incorporated into other activities.


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