Medical Education Research Q & A

Department of Family Medicine faculty member Shelley Ross, PhD, has been named President of the Canadian Association for Medical Education (CAME)

Danica Erickson - 07 May 2020

In April of 2020, department faculty member Shelley Ross, PhD, became President of the Canadian Association for Medical Education (CAME). CAME’s Mission is “to promote, and advance and recognize excellence across the continuum of medical education in Canada.” 

We spoke to Shelley about how she became interested in medical education research, the change she has seen since joining the department, and the future of medical education research in Canada.

How long have you been with the Department?

I started on July 1, 2008 – six weeks after I completed my PhD at the University of Victoria.

How did you come to be interested in medical education research?

I have always enjoyed education – I taught at an alternative high school before I got my Master’s degree in Learning and Development. My experiences working at a self-paced high school gave me a unique perspective during my studies of how people learn. My special area of interest was motivation theories. I studied motivation more intensely during my doctoral studies, particularly the ways in which teaching environments and types of assessments can make people more or less motivated to learn. I was not even aware of medical education research as a specific focus area while I was training – but a position for a Medical Education Researcher was posted in this Department right around the time that I was looking for a faculty position. Dr. Richard Spooner created the position specifically to bring in an education specialist to improve how teaching and assessment were done in family medicine. The position was the first of its kind for family medicine in Canada, and the expectations and goals aligned very well with my training and interests. I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and am eternally grateful to Dr. Spooner for the opportunities that continue to come my way because of this job.

What does medical education research involve?

The short form: I study how we train physicians and work to make it better. For the last ten years, I have brought established motivation and learning theories into every aspect of residency training in our program. In addition to ensuring that our training and assessment are designed using evidence-guided approaches, I am involved in evaluating multiple aspects of our teaching and assessment to make sure that we know what works (and keep doing it), and identify what is not working (and make informed changes to address gaps). I have also done work at the undergraduate level, and I am involved in some national initiatives in continuing medical education. Finally, I am also doing some research that looks at theory development: examining specific aspects of learning in medical education, and how those aspects align or do not align with theories of learning from other areas of education.

Why is your research important to healthcare?

Medical education is crucial to healthcare – clinical knowledge and practice, and patients’ needs and expectations, are constantly changing, and medical education needs to change too. The type of practice that our graduates will experience will be very different from that experienced by graduates from 10 or 15 years ago. Patients have access to information that was once available only to experts, and have very different expectations of their care providers. Patients are becoming more interested in being partners in their own healthcare, and medical education needs to prepare future physicians to practice patient-centered, flexible healthcare. Effective medical education should train physicians to be good life-long learners: to have insight into their own strengths and gaps, and to know how to address those gaps. Finally, medical education can teach and model better approaches to healthcare that are more cost-efficient at both the individual and systems levels while providing for better patient outcomes.

What kind of changes have you seen in the way education is delivered in the time you have been with the department?

I think there has always been excellent teaching in our department. We have so many truly exceptional clinical teachers. Probably the biggest changes have been in how we assess our learners. We have moved away from traditional types of assessments that emphasized medical knowledge to assessment methods that capture all aspects of being a good doctor: communication skills, professionalism, patient-centered care, and teamwork. Another change has been that when new ways of teaching or assessing are introduced, they are designed based on theory and a plan for evaluating whether they work is included from the beginning. The importance of medical education research in our Department can be seen in the fact that a second Medical Education Researcher was hired a few years ago. Dr. Oksana Babenko has been doing great work, especially her recent research on the importance of addressing physician well-being right from the start of medical school.

How do you hope to see medical education delivery evolve in future?

We are already well on our way to my hopes for the future! Perhaps my biggest hope is that medical education research will be recognized for the crucial role it plays in good clinical practice. One of the toughest parts of my job is finding funds for research projects. There is so much work that we could be doing, but there are limited options for funders who will fund medical education projects. One of my great hopes is that CIHR will create targeted opportunities to support medical education research. There are projects I would love to do that examine long-term outcomes of educational innovations – but that kind of research is expensive to do, as it requires collecting information from clinicians, staff, patients, and healthcare records. IT would be so exciting to be able to say: “When we do this thing in medical education, patients are benefited in these ways in the long term” because that is what the data shows.