Aspects of the McMaster PA Program that I love!

My tutorial group during break.

Since applications to the McMaster Physician Assistant program is now open, I want to share about the aspects of the program that I love to students who are interested in the program.

The Aspects of the McMaster PA Program that I love are:

  1. Problem Based Learning Style in Tutorial
  2. Use of Standardized Patients in class
  3. Clinical Placements
  4. Large Group Sessions
  5. *Bonus at the end (Not really related to the PA Program)

For more information about McMaster admissions, please see this handout.

1. Problem Based Style Learning in Tutorial

McMaster University’s Health Sciences program is known for their Problem-Based style learning. I find some students are hesitant to apply to McMaster because of this. I want to address this concern because it was once my own concern as well!

  • Whether students are in PBL or not, they often describe it as “a lot of self-learning”, which in some way is true. In my own experience, I would describe it as “guided and supportive self-learning”. Yes, I had to read about physiology on my own before tutorial but my complete understanding of the disease was from 1) the guidance of my tutor and 2) the combined knowledge of my group. 
    • It’s not like the program throws us a case and expects us to know everything about it! In our tutorial group, we set out objectives so that we know what is important to understand from each case (eg. ANEMIA: Define anemia in terms of clinical meaning and physiologic meaning; Understand how all of us manage not to be anemic)
    • Going into tutorial, I know I have the basic understanding of the disease. In tutorial, we bring together what we learned. You may think, “Well, I already learned all this on my own, why go over it in tutorial?”. The thing is, I go in thinking I understand what I read but going over it with my group helped clarify all the blurry details and reinforce what I read on my own. By the end of the tutorial, I feel so satisfied with all the additional new things that I learned!
  • I love PBL because I feel very responsible for my knowledge (versus information on powerpoint and told to memorize it). Tutorials force me to understand the disease so that I can explain it to my group. I love it when my group work together to piece the pathophysiology of the disease together. Our tutor also points out important things to think about too.

What I am trying to say is, YES, PBL is hard and some students are worried PBL is not for them but I think it just takes some time to get comfortable with, even if someone does not have a science/biology background! There are resources that are easy to read to understand the basic concept. Once that is covered, move on to more details. In summary, PBL is not that bad and I think students will grow to love it!

2. Standardized Patients (SP)

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.16.11 AM
The website says “Medical Students” but a lot of Health Sciences Programs, including Physician Assistants, use it too.

“A standardized patient is a healthy person who is trained to realistically and accurately reproduce a history, physical and/or emotional medical scenario that a real patient would present. Standardized patients provide faculty and students opportunities to teach, assess, and refine a variety of skills, including communication, interview, diagnostic, and clinical skills.” (Simulation, McMaster)

Reading a case in tutorial is completely different from having a patient in front of me. There is so much value in having SPs come in so that we can practice on them. From working with SPs, I find that I am okay with doing physical exams but I need more practice taking histories. Even more, I realize that I need to work on coming up with differentials on the spot!

Some students dread working with SPs, because they are scared/treating it like they are being marked on but that is totally the wrong mentality. Students who rather not do a history or physical exam on SPs are making a mistake. This is the time to practice and make mistakes. Why? Because people learn from mistakes! Better make them now and learn from them than in a real clinical setting.

I love working with SPs and actually WANT more to come in! In our IER class, we only have one SP day per unit where 3 SPs come in. For our communications class, we only get 2 SP per month. It may should like plenty but when actually in the program, I realize there is not enough practice! Then again, SPs are expensive to get.

3. Clinical IER Placements 

In my most recent IER placement at Hamilton General Health Sciences, I got to observe an emergency patient undergo angiogram and angioplasty. (This is a googled image but the room and set up looks exactly like this one!)

IER placements half day observerships in a clinical setting organized by the PA program for PA students to observe an area of medicine that reflects what is being studied in tutorial.

Clinical exposure is so important! I feel like this is where most of the learning takes place; when I see it working in the real world. In tutorial, we learn about treatment and management. We know that if someone has acute chest pain, we give them aspirin, do an ECG and possibly an angiogram if they have risk factors for Coronary Artery Disease. Blah blah blah. I can memorize all these things but I know that if I was thrown into ER, I would blank out when a patient comes in with chest pain.

In my most recent IER placement in the Heart Investigation Unit at Hamilton General Hospital (post will be up next week), it is not that simple. During my placement, I had a 62 year old male who came in with chest pain. The doctor looked at his ECG and boom, 4 nurses were already putting him on the bed, accessing his blood pressure, giving him aspirin, setting an IV line, and giving him supplemental O2. The doctor came in, said in the most comforting way that he was worried about the patient’s chest pain and will be getting him to do an angiogram and possible angioplasty right away.

Will I ever forget what to do when someone presents with acute chest pain? Probably not. The good thing about these IER placements is that it is organized by the PA Program! So all students gets the same opportunity each month to work in a clinical setting.

4. Large Group Sessions

Dermatology Large Group Session by Kristen Burrows (PA Class of 2010)

I LOVE Large Group Sessions. This is the only time we have something similar to a lecture. In Large Group Sessions, we get a lecture on a supplementary topic. These are just for our own understanding and are scheduled whenever the lecturer can come in. We are not expected to be experts – like know how to interpret an ECG because that would be the cardiologist’s job. However, we should have a basic understanding and know how to notice important things, like ST elevation on an ECG (indicator of a heart attack).

So far we had LGS on: ECG, Chest X-Ray, Paediatric Birth, Dermatology

I remember trying to learn how to read ECGs during the summer because the clinic I volunteered at would get ECGs reports everyday. The doctor would write his interpretation like “No Axis Deviation” and “No ST elevation”, “NSTEMI” etc. I had no idea what it meant and it is hard learning it on the internet. Some things are just really difficult to learn on your own and I really appreciate these large group sessions!

BONUS: Hills, Trails, and Peaks

Hopefully the aspects of the PA program I mentioned above appealed to you! One last thing I want to leave with you are some photos I’ve taken on a hike in Hamilton with my classmates. Hamilton has numerous beautiful waterfalls. It was also a great bonding experience with my classmates. The following photos are taken at Dundas Peak, just a 15 minute drive from campus (but a 40min hike up the hill!…#worthit).


Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset



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