Creating our “new normal” in undergraduate medical education

Guest blog by Dr. Meredith McKague, Associate Dean Undergraduate Medical Education, and Dr. Kent Stobart, Vice-Dean Medical Education

A great deal of change was necessary in the USask MD program, in the healthcare system and in the broader university, to navigate the pandemic. Our top priority in UGME was keeping learners, staff and faculty safe, while working to find effective ways to continue delivering education and keep graduation timelines on track. And as we navigate now to our “new normal,” we are using the feedback of our learners, faculty and staff to create a teaching and learning environment that benefits from both tried and true practices and what we’ve experienced these past few years.

One area of potential misinformation we want to address is speculation that the pandemic served to reduce the cost of delivering the USask MD program. This was not the case, mainly due to increases in small group teaching due to group sizes being reduced to better enable physical distancing, as well as PPE costs. Faculty time previously spent on in-person lectures was instead used to create pre-recorded lectures or to live-teach, virtually. (There were few instances where previously recorded lectures were re-used over the past two years.)

Thus, overall, while there were savings in other cost areas within UGME, the cost of teaching in the MD program in fact rose during the pandemic. Changes made to manage the pandemic did not reduce the cost of delivering the MD program.

Now, as we have transitioned back to more in-person teaching and learning in our program, we are testing a hybrid approach based on what we learned during the pandemic, leaning heavily on student and faculty feedback. The UGME office has received mixed feedback from students regarding online course delivery, with some preferring in-person learning entirely and others preferring a virtual approach where feasible for the content.

Thus, this current hybrid approach, with a mix of in-person and online learning, is being used and tested out, and supports what we have heard from MD students. It is very much still a new approach and we are learning as we work together to deliver a strong program. Faculty and course leads, building on the many changes made during the pandemic, continue to explore ways to creatively deliver content. We are committed to working with our learners and faculty to arrive at a sweet spot—the best possible delivery of our program to learners that ensures effective outcomes and offers reasonable flexibility for everyone involved. As always, there are various things that must be considered, including taking into account the range of needs and preferences of students and faculty, delivering a solid program and achieving strong learner outcomes, all balanced against sustainable program costs.

An area of success this year for learners and our program we would like to highlight is that our Medical Council of Canada (MCC) Qualifying Exam-1 results were slightly higher than the Canadian medical school graduate average, and we achieved very similar outcomes across our campuses and sites; this is a really important achievement as a provincial medical school delivering medical training to meet the needs of all of Saskatchewan. It’s important also as we expand the Regina campus this August to include 40 per cent of our first-year medical students; up to now first year for all seats in the program was delivered in Saskatoon.

We are also excited to be unveiling a renewed curriculum for the MD program this fall, so watch for more details on that at that time.

The pandemic has been a difficult time in so many ways for so many people. Our learners, faculty and staff have come together to support one another, and we have also seen some positive changes. We will keep working with learners, faculty and staff together as a CoM team to continue to improve our curriculum delivery in support of student learning.

Congratulations to our researchers on recent successes

In spite of the challenges to research productivity posed by the pandemic, the CoM has been able to celebrate many research successes in the past few years. Most recently, we had a number of very successful Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant applications in the Fall Project Competition, and I want to acknowledge those researchers and the important funded work they will be conducting.

Adding to his incredible career as the “father of agricultural medicine,” Dr. Jim Dosman is the principle investigator in a $1.4 million project over five years to examine what contributes to the mental wellness of Indigenous peoples in the home setting. More details on this work was provided in a recent USask announcement.

Dr. Juan Ianowski is leading a team of researchers, including from our college: Drs. Julian Tam, Asmahan AbuArish, Veronica Campanucci, and Chung-Chun (Anderson) Tyan; in a three-part project to advance understanding of cystic fibrosis. More information about this project, funded by $810,900 over five years, can be found in this USask article.

Also successful in recent CIHR funding Priority Announcement areas were Dr. Anil Kumar, with $300,000 for work in the area of infection and immunity (Early Career Research Support), and Dr. Deborah Anderson, with $100,000 for work in breast cancer research.

I’d also like to congratulate successful participants in one of our college’s internal research funding programs, and look forward to the successes they will have due to the support from ComBRIDGE, offered and coordinated by the Office of the Vice-Dean Research. Those successful researchers are: Drs. John Howland and Robert Laprairie, principle investigators with co-applicants Drs. Ian Winship, Christopher Phenix and Allen Chan; and Drs. Valerie Verge and Kam Chan, principle investigators with co-applicants Drs. Anand Krishnan, Jenna-Lynn Senger and Christine Webber.

While budgets are increasingly a challenge, providing internal support programs to help our CoM researchers achieve success continues to be an important priority of our college.

I know you will join me in congratulating these researchers on their recent successes, and in thanking all our researchers and those supporting them on their continued commitment through challenging times.