Family doctor, program administrator and award-winning teacher adds master’s degree to her long list of achievements

Lillian Au found great motivation in pursuing her master’s in health science education while working full time, knowing that she would use it every day in her career.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 16 November 2021

When Lillian Au, ’91 BSc, ’95 MD, ’21 MEd, walks across the virtual stage this week to accept her master’s in health sciences education (MHSE), it will be her third degree from the University of Alberta. This has been her academic home since the late 1980s, the place where she completed her Bachelor of Science, her MD, and her residency training in family medicine. It’s also where she works as a faculty advisor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Family Medicine and, as of August, the director for longitudinal themes for the MD program, a newly redefined role in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

We spoke with Au—winner of multiple teaching awards—about juggling teaching, seeing patients and pursuing graduate studies the past few years, the synergies among all three, and what lies ahead for her as a medical educator.

With a successful teaching career already established, why this master’s degree?

Much of what I do with the Department of Family Medicine is in a teaching role—sometimes small-group teaching, sometimes lectures, sometimes one-on-one. I started off my career as a family doctor, so to wear an educator hat was quite different at first.  

As an educator early on, much of our teaching was learned on the job. Some of it was intuitive, some of it was learned by experience. The longer I was in my role, the more I realized it involved a completely different set of skills than being a physician teaching in the clinic. We have to understand how to design a curriculum, how to evaluate a program, assess students, how to create exams that are valid and reliable. I realized very quickly that doing this master’s would really be helpful in my academic career. 

How did you balance your work and academic life?

I’ll be candid—I made a lot of sacrifices to make it work, and sometimes at 4 a.m. I wondered why I was doing this to myself! There were a lot of late nights and some very busy weekends. It's a two-year master’s but I stretched it to three, so taking that extra time made it more manageable. The coordinator and instructors were very understanding that the students have other roles and responsibilities, and I have a very supportive family. 

It was also easy to stay motivated because every time we did a module there was an instant sense of how I could apply it at work. It felt useful from the moment I started to learn about it.

What was your research focus?

It’s a course-based master’s, but we did have to do a capping project. I had done a six-month fellowship in musculoskeletal (MSK) medicine—sore joints, broken bones (about a third of all family medicine)—during my residency, and I found that most of the online resources out there are not that clinically useful for early learners. There’s basically a small collection of instructional videos that say, “Here’s how you examine the knee.” They don’t offer much context for clinical reasoning nor provide an appropriate approach on how to examine a joint, or even review potential relevant findings expected. 

My capping project was to create an in-depth online MSK resource that incorporates clinical reasoning with how to conduct the physical exam. I learned how to make and edit videos and built a Google site including all this information. This was a significant amount of work, but I’m really interested in academic technologies and its applications. It’s the way of the future. 

How does your master’s enhance your role in the faculty and what you bring to learners?

I saw it as an opportunity to be a better educator, to do my job to its full potential. It’s a complex role and I don’t know if I’ll ever do it justice, but this will help me provide a better education for our future physicians. The MD program is a four-year program; it’s a huge endeavour. To understand from start to finish how it’s put together, how to teach it, how to evaluate it, is so valuable. I use the things I learned in my master’s program every day. 

The MSK module I created is also already in use. I wanted our clerkship students to be able to use it to help prepare for their hands-on small-group sessions and all the medical students now have access to it to supplement their learning. The people who “test drove” it for me found it to be very helpful, because MSK medicine can be a difficult topic for medical students. 

Now that you’ve finished your master’s, what’s next?

In August I started in a new role as director for longitudinal themes, which involves improving the education of medical students so they can embrace not just the role of “medical expert,” but also other important roles of communicator, collaborator, leader, health advocate, scholar and professional. (These seven roles, as defined by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons’ CanMEDS framework, are the skills a physician must have to effectively meet their patients’ needs.) 

These CanMEDS roles also all tie directly to social accountability, and the set of courses I’m in charge of overseeing will help develop those skills so as doctors, we can meet the needs of all our patients, including traditionally underserved populations such as rural, Indigenous and Black communities. 

As a physician who’s always trying to aim for providing the best care for all patients, I know that the better we can educate our students in this area, the better the physicians they will be. 

What advice would you give to others juggling work and grad school?

I would say: Sometimes good is good enough. It’s very tempting to aim for perfection, but sometimes when I couldn’t always get the various competing priorities done on time I would take a step back and ask myself if I got what I needed out of it, if I learned what I was supposed to—and if the answer was yes, then that just had to be good enough, it was a survival strategy. I knew I had to look after myself or I wouldn’t be useful to anyone else. It’s like I tell my patients: When you’re in an airplane and the oxygen masks come down, you are instructed to put your mask on first before your child’s, because only then can you help others. It is hard to find balance sometimes, but it is something we all need to strive for.