Over the last 10 years, effective communication skills teaching and assessment programmes have been established in all undergraduate medical schools in the UK. Yet despite this very rapid implementation of educational change, communication skills lead staff in these institutions had been working very much in isolation.
This article describes why there was a need to establish a community of practice amongst the leads of undergraduate communication skills teaching programmes. It then outlines how the UK Council for Communication Skills Teaching in Undergraduate Medical Education was formed and how this new body has successfully enabled a collaborative approach within our community of teachers, encouraging us to work effectively and supportively together.
A major component of the UK Council's success has been the development of a password protected weblog which enables dynamic and regular communication between the group and sharing of documentation through a searchable Web-based database. This was established with the considerable help of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine (MEDEV).
Communication skills teaching has become a rapidly expanding component of undergraduate medical education in the UK over the last 10 years. For a new kid on the block, it has made astonishing progress in a very short time. Not only have effective, and in some cases extensive, teaching programmes been established in all schools but communication has also become a major feature in many schools' assessments of students' competence, including finals examinations. As a discipline communication has come of age and become part of mainstream medical education.
But as with any new development taking place simultaneously in many different locations, there is a need for dialogue and sharing of good practice. We can all learn from each other's successes and failures, avoid pitfalls, share practical examples of good practice and short-circuit the path to effective programmes. Clearly, the progress made so far would be considerably boosted by joint efforts to disseminate effective practice, critically appraise courses and establish joint working between schools
Yet two years ago, while attempting to research current educational practice in teaching explanation and planning skills to students, one of my research colleagues, Susan Gillard, discovered that there was no centrally held list of the lead educators in communication skills in the undergraduate schools and indeed, each individual lead knew only a very small proportion of their equivalents in the 32 schools. We had to construct our own list by contacting every school and doing some quite extensive digging. As a first step towards collaboration, we decided to send the list of names that we had collated to all schools for their future reference.
With the names to hand, we thought it worth seeing if there was a need for more collaboration in our community. In early 2005 I contacted the communication leads in all schools to discover what support there would be for a new collaborative organisation for the discussion and sharing of good practice. Up until this point, there had been no regular meeting of the leads of communication teaching in UK schools: communication skills teachers in these institutions had been working very much in isolation. Although there were other resources in the arena such as the RSM communication skills forum, the Northern network of communication skills teachers and the Medical Interview Training Association, none of these specifically represented undergraduate medical education or had a remit to represent all UK medical schools.
Overwhelming support for this idea led to the first meeting in Cambridge in April 2005 when 27 medical schools were represented and the UK Council of Communication Skills Teaching in Undergraduate Medical Education was born.
A further meeting in November 2005 was held in Birmingham with 23 medical schools represented and a third meeting in York in April 2006 with 24 schools. These meetings would not have occurred without the support of grants from MEDEV. The UK Council now meets every six months, rotating round the country, with one representative of each medical school attending each meeting. The next meeting will be in Nottingham in November 2006.
The aims of this new UK Council are to disseminate good practice, develop further improvements in the teaching of this relatively new subject, promote collaboration between schools, raise awareness of the national importance of this subject politically, develop consensus guidelines for wider publication, encourage scholarship and develop collaborative research projects. The outcomes of the work of the UK Council will include:
One major development already achieved is a password protected web site for members of this group only which has been established to enable the sharing of simulated patient scenarios, OSCE assessment stations and teaching plans. With the considerable help of MEDEV, a weblog has been created which enables dynamic and regular communication between the group and sharing of documentation through a searchable web-based database.
The UK Council is a joint collaboration between all UK medical schools which we hope will increasingly be seen as a major advantage to all schools. Apart from being a force for the gradual improvement of educational quality, the Council has already provided one concrete outcome of considerable value. Over 20 medical schools have now contributed at least six scenarios each to the online database of patient scenarios, creating a resource which will significantly reduce expenditure of time and effort for all schools.
So far, we are very grateful to have received grants from the Subject Centre to enable the UK Council to exist for its first two years. However, the Subject Centre cannot be expected to fund the activities of the Council indefinately and we are now seeking external funding to enable the activities of the Council to be placed on a more stable and permanent footing. Funding is required for the organisation of six-monthly meetings, secretarial support, the continued collation of scenarios, teaching plans and OSCE stations for the online database, production of consensus statements, development of research projects, promotion of staff development and interschool visiting. We have approached each UK medical school to contribute a subscription to the Council to enable the group to flourish and produce outcomes of value to all undergraduate medical school curricula.
In summary, the UK Council has enabled our community of teachers to work effectively and supportively together. It has proved of particular value to those colleagues who are in the early stages of developing their school's communication skills teaching but all of us have very much benefited by our collaboration. Such communities only work if there is a genuine desire to share and benefit from each other and if communication skills teachers cannot achieve this, I doubt any other group will do so!
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