Going Rogue

Another naturopathic exam session has come and gone. The end of our last midterm week tucked an uncomfortable 49 exams (in less than two years) under our already stuffed belts. Despite the over-stuffing of knowledge (taxing our Spleens, according to TCM, which is the equivalent of overeating at a buffet), I can’t help but feel empty at the end of these week-long ordeals.

For me, acquiring knowledge deserves to be a careful, sacred process, in which we are given the chance to see the truth of what we’re learning come to life before our eyes, where concepts begin to take shape, not just dissipate disconnectedly like smoke into the air.  After each exam period I feel the bulimic binge and purge take over as I hurriedly shove concepts, lists, diagrams and acronyms into my head, only to vomit them out hours later, as I select from a list of choices on a Scan-tron card.  After all of this, one can’t help but feel empty.  The hurried stress and the need to re-stuff myself again after the last purge in order to get ready for the next, and to do it in succession, 7 times over the span of 4 days, leaves me with the feeling of empty exhaustion.

The best way I ended an exam period was after Christmas exams, when some classmates and I went to Body Blitz.  The hot and cold cycles of the sauna and spa water, helped to dilate and constrict our blood vessels, helping our spleens, livers and minds detoxify the stress, anxiety and result of overfeeding that had occurred in the past few weeks.

However, this delicious experience raised the internal question: when did learning become like this?  Does learning always have to involve cramming the short-term memory with random facts only to face the need to clear it away after the information has been written down?  In an ideal educational system, I would hope that learning becomes something ingrained and personal, perhaps spawning personal evolution and inspiring different life choices.  However, there is nothing personal about a Scan-tron card.  When bubbling in my answers I cease to be Talia, an eager apprentice of the naturopathic profession, and become student number 10150__.  The details I have learnt, the truth of the information I have attempted to master and the personal meaning it has for me becomes lost in the numerical system and I become no different than the student beside me who selects similar answers.

The system trains the brain to work like a machine: input information, process, output information and delete recycle bin.   Is this what medicine is about?  Information out = information in?  Is there not something more human in the diagnostic process, in the doctor-patient relationship and in selecting treatment?  Computers are replacing farmers, factory workers and now the service sector.  Can doctors be replaced by computers too?  If not, then is teaching our minds to work like computers a wise educational goal?

I wonder if, had Picasso simply learnt the primary colours, whether he would have still been able to produce his masterpieces.  Sadly, this is our education at CCNM and at every other medical school; we are taught the primary colours – red, blue and yellow – and given some directions on how to mix them, but there are few classes dedicated to helping us transition from creating primitive cave paintings to mastering French Impressionism.

Second year has proven to be a challenge, not so much in learning the material, but in finding the kindling to stoke the motivational fires.  Through the effort and need to prove ourselves, I question whether there isn’t a better way to impart this information.  When do the loose strands of medical science subjects begin to weave themselves together? Should we be ignoring the importance of being able to integrate information and instead focus on memorizing facts that can easily be looked up?

In the book “The Homeopathic Conversation: The art of taking the case”, Dr. Brian Kaplan says:

Medical science is a science indeed.  A noble science.  But science is not enough to make a doctor.  Medicine is also an art, an art that takes many decades of experience to learn well.  Medical schools taught me too much of the science and little, if anything, of the art of medicine.  Considering I was in their clutches for a full six years I feel I am justified in expressing this regret.  Five of the six years I was there were especially painful for me because I really needed to start learning the art of medicine, how to talk to patients, take an interest in their lives and start learning what the word “rapport” means.  No, it was just facts, long lists of facts, many of them irrelevant to a general practitioner.  It took long, boring hours to memorize these lists and for a young man who wanted to be a doctor because he yearned to “help people”, this was a severe challenge.  Why was I so unhappy, even bored?  I was becoming a doctor, my life’s ambition.  Why?  It would be many years before I could really answer this important question.  Finally, I realized that I was not even being given a taste of what it was like to be a doctor, helper or carer.  Had there been one afternoon a week devoted to communication skills, group work, encouragement to express feelings, things might have been different.  Nevertheless I stuck it out, hoping that somewhere over the rainbow there would be a place for me as a doctor.  

As Dr. Kaplan points out, the real practice of medicine is both a science and an art.  Therefore it is a shame to strengthen our left-brained neurons and let the creative, integrative right brain melt to mush.  I hope that one day an outlet for creativity and innovation is provided to students in professional programs, giving us a way to personalize our studies, to take the information that has been passed down from other doctors, scientists and naturopaths and find a way to manipulate it, add to it and improve it.

While I look forward to the day we can end some of this bulimic cycle, begin our time in the clinic and are faced with real patients and another set of challenges, I wonder if there isn’t a way to improve education at CCNM and other medical and naturopathic schools.  Doing this would, not only improve the caliber of doctor that graduate from these schools, but also the lives of the patients who enter into our care and the profession as a whole.

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5 thoughts on “Going Rogue

  1. The whole process of being is student is learning to learn.

    Didn’t you realise this before you started? It’s science – facts you can’t escape from.

    If you forget, learn how to use your long term memory. Try a spaced repetition system.

    1. Unfortunately a doctor is not just a scientist, the practice of medicine is both a science and an art. And, while learning to learn is certainly an important goal of education (this is my 6th year of post-secondary education), memorization and regurgitation, which is the nature of multiple choice-based exams, is the lowest level on the hierarchy of acquiring new information.

      Did I know my school would be this way before I started? Admittedly, yes, but I also imagined that a professional program would involve more practical application (and it does, to an extent) than my undergraduate studies. However, this can be greatly improved upon and I think it would build better doctors, as well as maintain motivation throughout the four years of this program.

  2. Incredible post. You summed up my feelings towards the program entirely.

    Maybe the torture of exam periods is way of promoting self reflection? A way to beat us down so we can learn to build ourselves back up? A test of our commitment in achieving the end goal? A way to remind us to spend more of our free time in the Arts?

    …I am being overly hopeful. Hopeful that there is some method behind this madness.

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