Politics in the Medical Curriculum

Bi Yi Chen

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

“What? Margaret Thatcher is dead!” exclaimed the first medical student.

“Um…Who is Margerie Tha-that-sure?” replied the second with a blank expression. I could not help myself overhearing this conversation and my jaw nearly hit the ground.

As medical students, we are constantly being reminded of the expectation that we, as future practitioners, will eventually step into leadership roles within our communities. This often puts doctors in positions to shape government policies. Indeed, it is almost impossible to separate modern medicine from politics. Therefore, adding a political element to our curriculum would provide medical students with an ideal opportunity to prepare for these responsibilities.

Political studies would not only keep us informed regarding current policies, it would enlighten us to the process through which new policies are formed and existing policies are altered, replaced or removed. Individuals involved in this process must often maintain a broad knowledge of multiple disciplines including, but not limited to, cultural studies, religion, sociology, business studies, science, and technology. Therefore, it is important for medical schools to emphasise the importance of non-medical knowledge amongst medical students. This will equip our future clinicians with the insight to effectively fill leadership roles within society, and also provide holistic care to the wide array of patients that live in Australia.

Without such political knowledge, it is difficult to understand how scientific breakthroughs come to be applied to patients. The United Kingdom (UK) needle exchange programme, which provides clean needles for drug users, was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in response to the then emerging knowledge of patterns of HIV transmission. This contrasts with the Australian needle exchange programme, which was born from civil disobedience but also inarguably effective. Despite remaining contentious within our society, this programme paved the way for the current stance of harm minimisation in Australian drug policy. A broad knowledge of social issues and an understanding of the actions of both doctors and politicians are required to appreciate how these politically controversial decisions were made.

Despite this, the lack of political knowledge among many medical students is startlingly obvious as illustrated by the “Thatcher conversation” above. I am currently in the fourth year of my studies, and apart from a few lectures which I have encountered in public health regarding health policies, the curriculum is lacking in political studies. The importance of a broad non-medical knowledge and understanding of policy-making has not been impressed upon students. While dedicated and ambitious students may find time to fill these holes themselves, it may be beneficial for medical curricula to touch on these important issues.

There are several ways in which political studies can be integrated into our curriculum. One way is to introduce a series of lectures complemented with tutorial discussions; another way is to implement a policy to mandate the selection of at least one general education subject related to politics in medicine. Such approaches would help students to appreciate the importance of political knowledge in the medical field. After all, how can medical students become the leaders of tomorrow if we don’t have the knowledge to do so?