OPINION: Educating the doctors of tomorrow – the next 40 years

Tuesday, 16 October 2018


The first medical students at the University of Newcastle arrived 40 years ago. They entered a course that introduced them to patients from the start.

Professor Stephen Leeder
Professor Stephen Leeder, AO

Their learning was built on real-life health problems. Students worked in groups of eight with a tutor who guided them in their search for information pertinent to those problems. The faculty kept lectures to a minimum but were there to help. Teams of students directed their own learning.  They acquired the art of communicating with patients and understanding each patient's family and social context.

The medical program was new in every way. David Maddison, the founding dean, said in his welcome that not all the doors were on in the new building on the Callaghan campus, and indeed a grainy recording of his remarks contains an occasional interruption due to the rattle of jackhammers.  This was revolutionary stuff.

Now, 40 years on, Newcastle has continued to innovate as other medical schools have caught up. Newcastle led the way in opening medical education to Indigenous students.  A remarkable extension to the University of New England, a leader in regional academia, is now enshrined in a joint program between it and Newcastle.  Research has flourished including in the community in concert with the local health authorities and general practitioners.

And so, for the next 40 years? Two major forces will reshape the way we practice medicine and hence in the way we educate tomorrow's doctors.

First, there is the need to integrate care between hospital and community for the increasing number of people with multiple chronic problems - people who years ago would have died but now survive because of successful treatment. This is within our reach but it means tipping our health services and education on their side - looking to focus outwards to the community. Teamwork will be essential. This is far from being a job for hero doctors alone.  Interestingly Dr Dick Gibson and Ms Grace Parberry were onto this in the 1970s in Newcastle.  We know what to do.

The second challenge is, by contrast, almost beyond our grasp.  University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute researchers are part of a global community of scientists working on genetics and information technology to tailor treatments and refine diagnoses in ways we could not imagine 40 years ago. Artificial intelligence is galloping and will profoundly influence the way we practice medicine (and not just how we drive our cars).  Be prepared for massive changes.

Fortunately, our students, are an amazing and inspiring race. I have great confidence in them to handle these challenges. We need to show them the respect that David Maddison had for the students of 40 years ago, turning them loose on the problems of the day.

Finally, in this gilded and technologically dazzling age, we should not be bashful in repeating over and over the fact that medicine is above all a human mission, addressing the deepest needs of people in trouble. They deserve our love and respect. This is the Newcastle tradition.

Emeritus Professor Stephen Leeder, AO

Professor Emeritus of Public Health and Community Medicine, The Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney, Director of the Research and Education Network, Western Sydney Local Health District

Celebrating 40 Years of Medicine

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of medicine at UON, and the 10th anniversary of the Joint Medical Program (JMP). The JMP is delivered through a partnership between the (UON) and the University of New England (UNE), in collaboration with the Central Coast Local Health District and the Hunter New England Local Health District.

This partnership delivers a world-class medical program that addresses the chronic health workforce shortage that exists in remote, rural and regional communities. The JMP is a globally-recognised, regionally-based medical program that is committed to graduating doctors with a dedication to equity and excellence in all aspects of patient care with the skills and capacity to adapt and respond effectively to new and emerging future health needs.