Education in the second 80 years of Birmingham Medical School

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Alongside the rapid advances in the use of digital technologies in the healthcare sector there continues to be an equal expansion in the advancement of medical engineering… How different will the healthcare sector look in another 80 years, or even in 20 years when the Medical School turns 100?”  

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At a recent open day in our Medical School, which is now 80 years old, I was discussing the future of our healthcare professional programmes with an applicant and their parents.

We reflected on the speed of change in medical science and how this might impact on the health of the nation and therefore on the education that we, as a medical school, will need to provide.

How different will the healthcare sector look in another 80 years, or even in 20 years when the Medical School turns 100?

Will we still need as many doctors in the future, or will their jobs be performed by artificial intelligence-powered computers and robots? 

These questions might seem fantastical, more commonly found in science-fiction, but at Birmingham Medical School we take the future training of our students very seriously, and we are currently addressing what we need to teach our students to make them effective in the future workplace.

Most of us are oblivious to the extensive use of artificial intelligence (AI) in our everyday lives. For example, many of our smartphone cameras already use AI to identify faces and other objects when we take photos.

A recent news story suggested that the latest ‘AI doctor’ computer performed better in tests than the doctors themselves, although the results of this study remain highly controversial. Even though the replacement of doctors by AI may well be a long way off, it is clear that AI is already being integrated into other areas of healthcare, particularly in its use for the interpretation of medical imaging. The predicted explosion in the use of AI has prompted us to incorporate learning in this area for our students.

Alongside the rapid advances in the use of digital technologies in the healthcare sector there continues to be an equal expansion in the advancement of medical engineering. This includes chemical and biological engineering, which are now combining to provide novel materials for implants, laboratory generated tissues and new approaches to drug delivery.

Nanotechnology will further impact in this area, including nanoscale devices that can act as biosensors. There is a great depth of research expertise at the University of Birmingham in these areas, ensuring that we can impart appropriate knowledge to our students.

Some would argue that the way we deliver teaching and learning has changed very little over the past 80 years; most of the contact time with our students is still face-to-face in lectures and tutorials. However, this view ignores the impact of pedagogic development and digital technologies in our teaching and learning.

Our students are exposed to an ever increasing variety of teaching methods, from flipped classrooms to authentic assessments. Our digital education portfolio already includes virtual learning environments for all of their material and recordings of most lectures. 

Over the next few years we will increase our development of distance learning modules, both for new programmes that may be entirely delivered at distance, but also for integration into our on-campus courses.

Meanwhile, although we have separate degree programmes for our doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists, psychologists, biomedical scientists, and social care professionals, once they reach their workplace they will rarely work in isolation. Increasingly, the value of teams working across the different professions is being recognised, and we continue to reflect these changes by expanding our inter-professional education provision.

Despite the increasing pressures on universities and our students, we can remain very optimistic about the teaching and learning at our medical school. The rapid advances I’ve highlighted will become a normal part of the healthcare sector over the next few decades, and we will ensure that the education of our students continues to reflect these changes. 

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