Physician, teach thyself: Medicine at McMaster

McMaster’s future doctors learn in a way that emulates clinical practices—by working independently
Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University. (Ron Scheffler/McMaster University)

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Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University. (Ron Scheffler/McMaster University)
(Ron Scheffler/McMaster University)

Don’t expect to be coddled at McMaster’s med school. Students in the three-year condensed program are required to learn just as much as their colleagues in typical four-year programs—but with less supervision.

“The M.D. program was founded in the 1960s on the premise that medical students should learn medicine the way that physicians practice medicine,” says Dr. Robert Whyte, assistant dean of the undergraduate medical program at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. That is, they should have a large degree of control over their career path and success.

It also means students get a problem-based education. Rather than memorizing lecture materials on disease and pathology, for example, they build their knowledge, from day one, by understanding how diseases and ailments present in patients. Students move through the material in small group settings, and are expected to collaborate on reaching their goals—with the gentle guidance of faculty or staff. “This more closely resembles the small-group orientation of most clinical practice in both medical and interprofessional health care teams,” Dr. Whyte notes.

The program is split into two phases: pre-clerkship and clinical clerkship. During pre-clerkship, students attend a number of required courses and small-group tutorials, though they also have “free” time where they’re expected to take it upon themselves to study, prepare for class and explore elective subjects.

“There’s a lot of flexibility,” says Matthew Jessome, a third-year student in the program. “It gave me the opportunity to focus on my own unique needs rather than forcing me to spend 40 hours a week in very prescriptive, didactic learning sessions.”

Having some latitude in planning his schedule meant Jessome could take on research projects during his studies. One such project involved using MRI to study the erosion that happens in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis. That work has since been published in a medical journal, and it’s taken him across North America to competitions and speaking engagements.

“It’s been a great networking opportunity, too,” says Jessome.

Students work their way through 10 areas of medicine at hospitals or clinics in Hamilton and the region. During this time, students still have elective requirements to fulfill—up to 17 weeks, in fact. Some take the time to go abroad and experience medical practice in other countries. Many choose to stay put and focus on an area of medicine they’re particularly interested in. For Jessome, that meant internal medicine—an area that calls for highly inquisitive, creative and critical thinking. All are skills McMaster keenly fosters in its students. Jessome has used his elective time to travel to different medical schools and affiliated hospitals across Canada to get a sense of their learning environments and where he’d like to do his residency.

Indeed, there are pros and cons to completing an extensive medical school curriculum in just three years. “It’s intense,” Jessome admits. “If you’re a student who can work in the self care and breaks when appropriate, then this program really fits well with someone who takes initiative.”


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