A doctor and patient talking at a hospital bed.

Putting patients at the heart of health sciences education

  • Education

Being an effective healthcare professional isn’t just about treating body parts or diagnosing illnesses. Rather, a good healthcare professional treats the whole patient as a person and individual in front of them and, crucially, listens to them.

At RCSI, this is a fundamental principle. And the best way to ensure that healthcare professionals including doctors, pharmacists and physiotherapists listen to and respect their patients is to integrate patient involvement in the curriculum from the outset. 

It’s why Michelle Kirrane Scott, teacher practitioner for management, professionalism and leadership at the RCSI School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, leads delivery of a strategic framework for Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) in Education – ensuring that the patient is at the heart of educational activity at the university.  

PPI in education at RCSI is guided by a multidisciplinary team that includes patient and public contributors, students and staff experienced in PPI. The aim is to ensure that patients and members of the public have a meaningful input not just on curriculum design and assessment, but also through direct engagement with health science students – including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physiotherapists and advanced therapeutic technology students – to enable them to understand their needs as patients.  

The programme involves patient storytelling, sharing experiences, listening to advocates and advocacy groups and co-teaching. Patients are involved in curricular design and review, advisory boards and educational activity planning groups.  

Gender bias

International evidence points to a gender bias in medical treatment. Women in pain are more likely than men to receive sedatives over pain medication. Meanwhile, medical understanding of disease is usually based on male physiology, and this can mean that women having a heart attack are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed. Meeting female patients and hearing their experiences, however, can help alert healthcare students to this issue and ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.  

RCSI’s students have, for instance, met with breast cancer survivors, some of whom experienced delayed diagnosis. The students heard how 40% of women have denser breasts and that breast density is a risk factor for cancer, but that current screening systems can fail to pick this up – putting more people at risk.  

They’ve met with patients who share their experiences of living life with chronic illnesses and problems encountered particularly during communication in the diagnosis and treatment of illness. Poor communication skills can have long term impact for patients. Students have an opportunity to engage with them and learn ways that might have reduced the stress of their experience.

Words can make such a difference to the patient experience and hearing the story directly from a patient is the most effective way to embed this learning. Students have also heard about challenges in the workplace for people living with multiple sclerosis and aim to identify ways to improve the experience of others.

Round-table conversations

PPI contributors, patient partners and patient organisations have been invited into RCSI for round-table conversations with senior management and leadership, to ensure perspectives and the patient voice were incorporated in the recently published RCSI Strategy. To enhance relevance and impact, Michelle Kirrane Scott is committed to working side-by-side with patients, the public and RCSI’s local community through PPI in education. 

RCSI also has an advanced simulated patient programme with volunteers from the local community to give their time to support the next generation of health sciences graduates. We all have had experience of being patients and we all will in the future, so being able to act as a patient comes naturally to these volunteers, who are also trained in giving feedback on student performance. 

Students can engage directly with these patients in a safe environment, all the while getting feedback from peers, tutors and, perhaps most crucially, their patients. The students can then reflect on what they learned and consider the crucial question: what they might do differently when it’s a real scenario with a real patient?  

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.