Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Humiliation Heap

In what ought to be his final year, our son has retreated from the medical school frontline back to our home in the bush, and as his parents, we hope that the nation’s medical schools take heed of Dr Kimberley Ivory’s call to arms.

Along with a sense of worthlessness acquired from ward rounds, his angst was compounded by a lack of cohesive administration from the Joint Medical Program, the much touted medical project undertaken by the University of New England (UNE) and the University of Newcastle to train students to become doctors in conjunction with a rural campus.

He spent the first three years of his medical degree at UNE in Armidale, and then commenced his 4th year (1st year clinical) at the University of Newcastle.

But he was unprepared for the rural / urban divide which manifested itself once he got to Newcastle with reminders from the University of Newcastle medical school that he was not a Newcastle student despite the fact that he had been issued with a University of Newcastle student number and a University of Newcastle student email address.

He was also unprepared for the suspension meted out to him at the beginning of the Semester as a result of issues with ClinConnect, essentially the ‘Police Check’ for health workers.

Notwithstanding that the two universities are part of the same joint medical program and the same health authority (Hunter New England Health), ClinConnect compliance proved to be ‘a mountain too high’ for the JMP, and whilst UNE medical school permitted hospital visits by virtue of his police check clearance, the University of Newcastle medical school did not.

Barred from ward rounds and struggling with the administrative chaos over email addresses and student numbers, he quickly fell behind, and the gulf between ‘actual’ student welfare and medical school spin widened in a most Kafkaesque way.

Upon his dismissal, an offer of counselling was proffered and then immediately retracted when it dawned on the interviewing professor that as a result of suspension, our son was no longer a medical student and therefore not eligible for counselling (you can’t make this stuff up).

Despite being reinstated on the course, our son was shaken by this episode and failed semester 1, necessitating a continuation of studies throughout the mid-year break to catch up with missed clinical rotations from the ClinConnect calamity.

He came back to semester 2 exhausted and worried that he didn’t know anything, even though we tried to reassure him that as a medical student he didn’t need to know anything.

But as ward rounds continued to be punctuated by fear of humiliation in front of his peers, his belief in himself was reduced to a whisper and we were not surprised when he subsequently failed Semester 2 as well.

However we were surprised that the JMP’s bureaucratic Catch-22 approach only got worse.

Whilst our son attended the requisite post-fail interview and submitted the requisite ‘show-cause’ form in the requisite time-frame, the JMP failed to contact him before the start of the new medical school academic year (January 19, 2015).

Without instructions from either of the JMP medical schools and not knowing what he should do, he emailed both medical schools on that first day of semester 1 to see whether they were able to instruct him on how to proceed.

He received an immediate automated reply from UNE to the effect that they were addressing his matter.

By noon the University of Newcastle Medical School had despatched an email advising him to re-enrol and continue with his studies. And then the University of Newcastle Medical School being the University of Newcastle Medical School, could not miss the opportunity to remind him that he was not a Newcastle student even though he had a University of Newcastle student number and a University of Newcastle student email address.

Finally at the end of the first day of Semester 1 he heard back from UNE that he was suspended for one semester.

In a strange way that final email brought peace at last and a chance to plan. Now the next six months ahead would not be dictated by the JMP or their muddle of email addresses and student numbers or their reminders that he was not a Newcastle student or even the unsettling high turn-over of UNE deans of medicine.

He is enjoying his ‘gardening leave’ and is gradually joining us again in conversation and thoughts, and most importantly his opinion; with regard to returning to the JMP, he is reserving judgment.

But as his mother I want to know where was the mentoring, where was the respect, where was the ability to empathise with a student whose confidence was so clearly eroded?

We all have a vested interest in the education of our future doctors, and as significant players in this community enterprise, we need our medical schools to play their part in a responsible and caring way … whether they are ‘Joint’ or not.


  1. Hello Sue,

    I'm so sorry to hear about what your son has been going through. Med school is far from humane.

    You may well have read this in the Guardian:

    It is horrific that killing someone with a car, especially when drunk or high on drugs, or phoning or texting at the wheel, is still seen as a misdemeanour, and less grave than other forms of manslaughter.

    Winter here has been too icy and snowy for me to be cycling (last, around Christmastime, when there was a mild spell), but lots of people, most of them younger, have been cycling through the winter this year - big uptake. The cycle paths aren't ploughed as diligently as in the Nordic European countries yet.

    vive la vélorution,

    lagatta, à Montréal

    1. Thank you, Lagatta, for your kind thoughts - and thank you for the Guardian link, and yes you are so right in your sentiments.

      In our Big Oil cultures, we have such a skewed take on things.

      And I'm with you 100% in 'vive la vélorution'!!!!

  2. I hope your son is doing better. The Québec Minister of Health, who not only looks but talks and acts like a buldozer (think a French Rob Ford, minus the obvious drug and drink abuse) is forcing doctors here to take on a minimum number of patients and basically rush them through consultations in a few minutes. As you know, a far greater percentage of new doctors now are young women, and the young men (brought up by feminists our age!) also want to take a more humane approach to medicine.

    As for helmet laws and warm (and often downright hot) sunny places, I read of a plan to bring in a helmet law in California. Unfortunately I found out about the petition against it after it was closed, but the link also includes the address of the group fighting this absurdity.

    The Guardian also has a piece on cycling in Britain vs Netherlands by Carlton Reid, and it mentions a vélorutionary group I belonged to in the 1970s and 80s, Le Monde à bicyclette, founded 40 years ago.

    And it is much milder, and I have my trusty old Raleigh out.