The changing face of cancer in Australian medical schools

Gabrielle Georgiou

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

Gabrielle Georgiou
5th Year Medicine, University of New South Wales

Gabrielle Georgiou is a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, completing her final two years of study at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney.

A multitude of changes are revolutionising the study and practice of oncology worldwide.   Despite the undeniable importance of cancer education, there is currently no consensus amongst Australian medical schools as to what should be taught regarding oncology practice, nor have the best ways of teaching and learning about cancer been fully elucidated in the literature, or in the clinical realm. There is a lack of important cancer knowledge amongst graduating medical students and variation exists amongst individual Australian medical faculties, between states as well as individual universities from the same state. Furthermore, there is very little teaching here in Australia in relation to emerging genomic technologies within oncology, and in particular, the ever-increasing role of personalised and preventative medicine in cancer care today. Ultimately, there is a clear need for an integrated, overarching national oncology curriculum, embracing a patient-centred approach; national evaluation and assessment; supplementary courses; utilisation of self-directed learning and reflective practice activities; and greater emphasis on emerging technologies. With more research focus on this area, in future there may be a larger evidence-base targeted at providing improvements in Australian Oncology education, assisting graduates in gaining adequate understanding and appreciation of cancer-related scenarios and cancer care. More effective teaching and learning facilitation, with better overall Australian training outcomes, will lead to advancement in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and management as well as ensuring more insightful and valuable patient interactions in the future.


A multitude of changes are revolutionising the study and practice of oncology worldwide.  The ways in which oncology and cancer care are incorporated into medical school curricula in Australia is thus of particular interest. Despire the undeniable importance of cancer education, there is currently no consensus amongst Australian medical schools as to what should be taught in regards to oncology practice, nor have the best ways of teaching and learning about cancer and cancer care been fully elucidated in the literature or in the clinical realm [1-4].

In Australia, there is considerable variation in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of oncology amongst individual medical faculties [8,9] and a lack of important cancer knowledge amongst graduating medical students, between states and between individual universities from the same state [8,9,10]. This inconsistency is compounded by the nature of oncology as a multidisciplinary specialty, with overlap in numerous fields including pathology, surgery, histology, radiology, anatomy, genetics, communication skills, and palliative care [1].

Further, there is very little teaching here in Australia in relation to emerging technologies within oncology and in particular, the ever-increasing role of personalised and preventative medicine in cancer care today. Educators are now presented with the inevitable task of addressing all foundational educational needs in our generation of medical graduates. They must also ensure to incorporate pertinent aspects of such a rapidly progressive field of medicine as it relates, for example, to genetic testing and counselling, the rise of personalised or ‘precision’ medicine, and ongoing development in cancer immunotherapies [11-14].

Variation in oncology education in Australia is compounded by the lack of literature on this subject, which is predominantly qualitative in nature and overall, more difficult to evaluate [30].  Whilst cancer is the number one cause of death in Australia, oncology itself is still not a subscribed part of the medical curriculum, nor is an oncology rotation compulsory in Australian medical schools. There is an ongoing lack of literature regarding oncology-specific teaching and learning methods, as well as a lack of evidence in the effective implementation of compulsory curricula or rotations to engage with foundational and emerging aspects of oncology or palliative care.

The importance of this issue resonates with students, recent graduates, and educators as all medical students will at some point in their career play a role in the management of a cancer patient [5], whether as a resident on an oncology rotation, as a general practitioner at the stage of diagnosis, during long-term follow-up of a cancer survivor [6], as a fully-qualified oncologist, or as a clinical geneticist. Furthermore, with our ageing Australian population, there will be greater numbers of individuals diagnosed with and treated for cancer than ever before as well as an increased number of survivors, making cancer a chronic illness to be managed by a multidisciplinary team [7].


How did we get here?

In 1993, the General Medical Council published a detailed review of medical education [15], which led to a major overhaul of medical school oncology training in the United Kingdom, and worldwide [1,16].  A survey of European universities showed that 95% indicated the need for increased cancer education and there was an overwhelming interest in a common European oncology curriculum [17].

In 1999, and again in 2007, the Ideal Oncology Curriculum (IOC) for Medical Students was released here in Australia [18], produced by the Oncology Education Committee of the Cancer Council Australia and endorsed by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). It provides an unparalleled example of the evidence-based recommendations required for medical school cancer education, including prescribed clinical experiences and knowledge attainment, which necessitate a patient-centred approach to training methods. In each section, there is detail of prerequisite knowledge, as well as a list of representative questions that illustrate the ‘required depth of knowledge’ for graduating medical students, with attached example answers and multiple-choice question-answer options.

Focus is on the patient rather than the discipline, with topics ranging from public health and cancer biology, to patient management, diagnosis, communication skills, and clinical experiences [18]. More recently, it has been supplemented by a detailed e-Book entitled “Clinical Oncology for Medical Students”, which may be utilised alongside the recommended experiential learning, and acquisition of technical oncology skills, for a more robust understanding of the prescribed IOC material [19].

Moreover, the World Health Organisation and UICC recommend that cancer education be incorporated into oncology modules within an undergraduate curriculum and that medical students spend a minimum of two weeks in oncology training [4,5]. However, despite the superlative example given by the IOC, there has been minimal uptake in Australia, which may be linked to the current lack of a national curriculum, the dearth of literature on effective educational strategies, or the historical absence of oncology content in Australian medical school curricula. This lack of implementation and an inadequate evidence-base makes the feasibility and effectiveness of oncology rotations or uptake of the IOC guidelines incredibly difficult to ascertain, let alone, achieve.


Oncology teaching and learning methods

Internationally, there has been a push for an overarching pre-clinical oncology curriculum for medical students incorporating medical knowledge, psychosocial aspects, communication skills training, and utilisation of a variety of teaching methods such as interviews, discussion, reflection, and lectures [1,2,7,20].

There is increased emphasis on a patient-centred approach to teaching [11,13] and learning in oncology education [22,23]. This should extend from the use of standardised patients teaching examination skills to medical students, to the involvement of cancer patients in communication skills teaching and portfolio learning [1,24].

Self-directed learning (SDL) is the educational strategy considered most likely to produce medical graduates who are prepared for lifelong learning and who are able to meet the needs of their patients [26,30]. SDL activities include problem-based learning (PBL), discovery learning, task-based learning, experiential and reflective learning, portfolio-based learning, small group or project-based learning, and peer evaluation with learning contracts [26]. Results from numerous studies have indicated a trend towards improved student performance from SDL assessment, as with the follow-up of a cancer patient over an extended period of time [1,21,23-25]. The use of portfolio assessment and learning journals is also championed as a tool of successful oncology training and for lifelong education [25]. An array of methods may thus be employed in undergraduate oncology training whilst utilising the SDL approach [26-27].

The PBL approach, more specifically, as one of the major aspects of SDL, facilitates a deeper learning style [28] and involves an active search for understanding based on a given scenario. This technique is linked to better clinical problem-solving skills in medical students with higher levels of motivation and stimulation found [27] and superior outcomes in students tested [9,29].

Regarding format, some have argued that an independent block style is more effective in presenting an oncology curriculum [20]. This is as opposed to an integrated model of teaching into other system modules and would be relevant within an Australian-based system. In block format, the curriculum may be presented through oncology-specific technology-based lectures, team-based communication, and clinical skill exercises supplemented by lectures paired with relevant clinically-based scenarios and other activities posted online to be worked through independently [20].

Computer-aided learning [1,21,22,30] may itself have a role to play as supplementation to oncology study though technology-based approaches are not necessarily superior to other learning techniques [1]. Here in Australia, a number of medical schools are already utilising the e-Learning Undergraduate Modules for Australian Medical Schools, accessible via The e-Learning Portal, which is provided by The Australasian College of Dermatologists [31]. This is highly applicable on a national level when considering skin cancer rates in Australia [32]. Overseas, an ‘eDerm’ online curriculum [33] provided to 252 medical students in the United States significantly improved the diagnosis and management of pigmented skin lesions by medical students [33].

In regards to communication skills, suboptimal communication can lead to adverse psychological effects in patients. It can compromise a physician’s ability to treat patients, as well as impacting patient satisfaction, medication compliance and overall clinical outcomes [34]. The use of group presentations, small-group communication skills practice [35], and reflective self-awareness exercises have been shown to improve communication skills. This is particularly true with the use of patient-actors in simulated clinical situations as opposed to role-play alone. There is overwhelming proof that communication skills can be taught and should be delivered through experiential learning methods, which are ultimately more effective than instructional modes to address communication skills development in oncology [36].

Moreover, a primary skill that any medical student can bring to an oncology experience, or rotation is their presence and their time. Medical student training in this burgeoning field [11] must facilitate the development of essential communicative abilities: to be able to listen to a cancer patient’s story during their clinical journey, to be able to connect with this experience, and communicate effectively in response to this scenario [18,34-36].


Lessons from abroad

At the University of Wales’ College of Medicine, medical students followed a patient along their cancer journey over a six-month period and were assessed during patient interactions and through a final portfolio. Overall, students found the project rewarding and reported gaining unparalleled insight into the cancer experience [22].

A three-day intensive oncology course has been piloted in Israel, with students feeling more comfortable with cancer-related issues, less afraid of dealing with death, and better able to cope with uncomfortable cancer-related emotional situations as a result [7]. Psychosocial and ethical aspects were presented through student-led presentations and discussions, a psycho-oncology session led by a psychologist, and two presentations by cancer patients describing their personal experiences and offering advice on aspects such as the doctor-patient relationship [7].

In Poland, attempts have been made to improve cancer education through the National Program for Combating Neoplastic Diseases [16]. This was done with a course incorporating computer-learning modules, online tests, portfolio learning, summer school, modules taught by cancer patients, and attachments in oncology and palliative care. Observations highlighted that the introduction of these courses better prepares students for delivering cancer care [16].

Finally, in a novel Brazilian experience, students staffed an oncology clinic, with 77% of students involved in this approach over a ten-year period rating it as the best activity of their course. Findings suggested that attendance at an oncology outpatient clinic can contribute significantly to the cancer education of medical students [24].


Future directions for Australian oncology education

There is a clear need for the following in cancer education:

  1. An integrated, overarching national curriculum, with a patient-centred approach
  2. National evaluation and assessment
  3. Summer schools and supplementary courses
  4. Embracing SDL & PBL, with reflective practice activities
  5. Greater emphasis on emerging technologies


  1. An oncology curriculum, with a patient-centred approach

 A relevant, integrated oncology curriculum as detailed by the IOC [15,18] should be embraced by all Australian medical schools, with the aim of bringing together requirements regarding essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes about cancer and cancer-related care [2,8,9,10,17]. It should be well-rounded and ideally supported by a coordinating body, with an academic basis of professorships [2].

 As detailed by the IOC [18], there is a need for increased emphasis on clinical interaction and greater time spent with patients [1,2,5,21,37]. As suggested [18], medical students need at least five cancer clinical experiences before graduating:

  • Talking with and examining people affected by all stages of cancer;
  • Talking with and examining people affected by all common cancers;
  • Observing all components of multidisciplinary cancer care;
  • Seeing shared decision-making between cancer patients and their doctors; and
  • Talking with and examining dying people [2,15,18].


  1. Assessment

As shown in Australian medical schools, assessment drives performance [2]. Thus, having decided upon a particular patient-centred approach, carrying out formal evaluation of student learning and course content is vital for enhancing training outcomes [18,38], and should inform the prescribed curriculum [2]. In future, this might include the introduction of national assessment, such as a national exit examination [40], with oncology-related scenarios aimed at testing core knowledge levels and ensuring standardisation is maintained across the country [9,39,40].


  1. Supplementary courses 

Regarding adjuncts to a proposed national curriculum and module [20] of oncology teaching, summer schools and extra courses [7,16] may be of great use here in Australia [1]. The Vienna Summer School, for example, receives high levels of praise and acceptance rates from European medical students. These students note that these supplementary courses provide them with a greater understanding of oncology and an appreciation of its’ multidisciplinary character [15]. Summer schools may offer educational activities that fill the gaps of an otherwise disjointed oncology training program, as shown by the example of oncology summer schools in Europe [4].


  1. Self-directed learning, problem-based learning and reflective practice

Learning in medical school is rarely fully autonomous, with students valuing pedagogic support and often relying on teachers as coordinators and facilitators of their learning environment [41]. Students should be encouraged to recognise the importance of evidence-based medicine, how to critically appraise literature, and the need to constantly update one’s knowledge based on high-quality evidence and guidelines [18]. Furthermore, team-based learning through small scenario or discussion groups has a role to play in the application of basic science knowledge to real-world oncology-related scenarios [35]. This could lead to greater engagement with lecture content and its’ application in daily medical practice.

There is increasing necessity for our medical curriculum to foster the development of sound communication skills. Furthermore, providing students at every level of their education with an opportunity for reflective practice, as individuals and in smaller groups, is also a must. This may serve as an important tool in supporting students who emotionally encounter negative experiences as a result of difficult or uncomfortable clinical encounters. Mentoring, as an extension of this pathway, may be of use in allowing reflection following hospital experiences. It may be of use for medical students to attach themselves to ‘mentor’ clinicians on rotation, staff whom they perceive to be effective teachers for coaching purposes, development of reflective practice, and consolidation of learning [42].

Moreover, students learn more effectively by being actively involved in a PBL strategy, as it facilitates epistemic curiosity through activation and elaboration of prior knowledge [22]. Reflection on experience, followed by evaluation, analysis, and appropriate action, may facilitate further learning and appreciation of curriculum content in the Australian context [1,4,18,21,22,23,25]. Portfolio learning [1,22,23] should thus be employed in a set teaching program [16,23], with reflective exercise  and a compulsory portfolio-based experience, or assessment. This would to facilitate reflection and exploration of the patient experience along their cancer trajectory.


  1. Emphasis on emerging technologies

Dramatic advances in genomic technology stand to revolutionise clinical cancer care [13,14]. Personalised (or ‘precision’) medicine is a banner term, describing the use of molecular tools to individualise healthcare through genetic testing, whole genome sequencing, exome, or transcriptome sequencing [13]. While there has been ample research in the area of genetic testing and its’ implications for our future, very little is known about how best to encourage development in understanding of such technologies at the level of medical students or recent graduates.

In the realm of breast cancer in Australia, for example, an individualised cancer care approach is evidenced in the case of genetic testing for BRCA1/2 mutations, which reflect a specific predisposition toward breast and ovarian cancer [43]. About 5% of cases of breast cancer and 10% of ovarian cancer cases, are due to such inherited predisposition [44,45]. With progress towards a more personalised, family-centred model of oncological care in Australia, knowledge of ones’ genetic and genomic information plays a crucial role, from screening and prevention, to individualised surgical treatment, and utilisation of targeted therapies based on a tumours’ molecular signature [46].

In order to fully realise the effective application of personalised medicine into routine Australian cancer care, students and clinicians need a more comprehensive understanding of emerging technologies. In addition, an appreciation of the experiences, and attitudes of cancer patients, and their families is required. Evidence suggests that the majority of cancer patients are willing to undergo genetic and genomic testing during, or following, cancer treatment [11]. More work is needed in this area to provide graduates with a more refined appreciation of how best to communicate genomic concepts to a broad range of patients [11]. Medical graduates must have greater awareness of foundational genetics-based and personalised medicine pathways. This will allow them to alleviate patient misconceptions and ultimately, to empower patients to make more informed cancer care decisions [12-14]. Without this, there may be failure to adequately deliver genetically-guided cancer care, treatment, and management in the future. The issue our educators will now face is how to best integrate this information into a feasible medical student curriculum.



More effective teaching and learning strategies in oncology should be aimed at producing Australian medical graduates with adequate and relevant cancer-related knowledge, skills, and attitudes that best meet the needs of their society [2]. The IOC [18] does an exceptional job of demonstrating the requirements and expected knowledge to be attained through a prescribed oncology curriculum here in Australia.

Australian medical students need a well-rounded understanding of oncology concepts and appropriate examination and communication techniques to facilitate aspects of cancer diagnosis, referral, and management in future clinical practice [20]. There must be focus given to developing an awareness of emerging technologies in the realm of cancer care with emphasis on basic concepts related specifically to genetic testing, genetic counselling, and personalised medicine.

The foundational experiences provided by medical school training serve to shape one’s entire career as a doctor. Those students more engaged in their learning through SDL, PBL and reflective practice strategies [26,27], and who have a greater understanding of key concepts are more likely to achieve superior assessment outcomes [2]. They are also more likely to be involved in successful clinical interactions overall [1].

With greater research focus on this area in future, there may be a larger evidence-base targeted at providing overarching improvements in Australian oncology education. This will assist graduates in gaining an adequate understanding and an appreciation of cancer-related scenarios and cancer care. More effective teaching and learning facilitation with better overall Australian training outcomes will ultimately lead to advancement in cancer diagnosis, treatment, and management outcomes as well as ensuring more insightful and valuable patient interactions in our futures [5,12].


Conflicts of interest

None declared.



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