Pioneering approach

Medical students at McMaster University benefit from the institution’s world-leading teaching methodology and research excellence. supplied

Medical students at McMaster University benefit from the institution’s world-leading teaching methodology and research excellence. supplied

Educational leadership and research excellence make McMaster’s medical school stand out

The McMaster University Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine receives as many as 5,000 applications annually for the 206 available seats. There are good reasons for the medical school’s popularity – in addition to having revolutionized the methodologies for teaching medicine, the school has a world-renowned reputation for research excellence.

An anatomy of the school’s history is relevant. Dr. Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences, says when the school opened in 1969 a decision was made to change the way medicine was taught, effectively disassembling old methods that revolved around “people like me pontificating in lectures” and reassembling them, moving to a small-group, problem-solving environment that enhances engagement and leads to better learning outcomes.

The problem-solving environment also teaches students to adapt to change and prepare for a career that includes a commitment to life-long learning. “Studies show that students retain more information when they acquire it themselves in problem-solving situations,” he says. The school also moved from the traditional four-year degree to an intensive, three-year program that runs year-round.

In another break from the past, the school started accepting students from outside the traditional science disciplines. Graduates have included artists, musicians, teachers and farmers, as well as founders of international aid groups, a former astronaut (Roberta Bondar) and a retired Cirque du Soleil acrobat.

“Having a science background is not a deterrent, but we put a great deal of emphasis on a student’s breadth-of-life experience and their innate ability to problem solve and work with others,” explains Dr. O’Byrne.


I have learned so much about how to interact with patients in a respectful and caring manner. This makes the patient’s experience with health care more positive and leads to better outcomes.
— Rishi Sharma Second-year student

And there are good reasons for this. Medicine is at heart about people, and a large part of a physician’s job is to communicate effectively with patients and colleagues. “The belief is that very smart people who are excellent communicators and problem-solvers, who are compassionate and work well in a team, can learn the science of medicine,” says Dr. O’Byrne. “Indeed, the ability to listen is one of the most important talents a physician can have.”

For students, patient interaction starts almost immediately; in the first term, medical students spend time with family physicians in their practice.

Students also benefit from an early introduction to research, an area where McMaster excels. Fields of research expertise range from allergies, asthma and childhood disability to gastroenterology, cardiology, infectious diseases, stem cells, population health and virology. Past McMaster researchers are credited with developing evidence-based medicine, which has been adopted by medical practitioners around the world and advocates that decisions and policies about health care should be based on evidence, not just the beliefs of health-care providers.

“The exposure to research has very important consequences,” says Dr. O’Byrne. “It exposes students to innovation, gives them a grounding in the possibilities inherent in research, and increases the chances of them focusing on research in their own careers.”

This combination of elements – teaching methodology and research excellence – is what made McMaster the right choice for first-year student Naomi Reaka, who has a background in humanities and biology.

“I like the active way we learn through problem solving in small groups rather than passively learning in a lot of lectures,” she says. “It teaches you to think critically about the information you have, how to apply it to a problem and how to find new information to supplement what you already know.” On the research side, she’s looking forward to breaking ground in health policy.

Second-year student Rishi Sharma says he chose McMaster, in part, because students “learn medicine the way it is practised,” and its emphasis on the importance of patient interaction. “I have learned so much about how to interact with patients in a respectful and caring manner,” he says. “This makes the patient’s experience with health care more positive and leads to better outcomes.”

McMaster will continue to innovate, inspire and teach future physicians what they need to know to be successful and deliver the highest-quality health care, says Dr. O’Byrne.