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The University of Ghana Medical School is 60 and there is a lot of justified pride in its incredible journey.
Before I reflect on the great institution, let me make a confession. While I am a proud alumnus of UGMS, I am not a graduate. I am a graduate of 4 Universities with Certificates from 2 others but not of UGMS. I was chased out 6 months before graduation and have carried the disappointment of not graduating from UGMS with me since then.
I prefer reflections to celebrations because the latter tend to focus mostly on achievements. Reflections, in my view, are more complete.
Surprisingly, I did not appreciate the exceptional quality of UGMS till I moved to North America. Here, I found that my training was considered superior to that obtained from most other parts of the world. On the wards and in the classrooms here, I met teachers who exalted in extracting from students the details that were the stuff of our journeys in virtually every department at Korle-bu. And they loved a student who could provide those.
At UGMS, I met a dizzying collection of teachers at every level. Indeed, after training in many hospitals and schools, it would be hard to identify a better collection of teachers than those I encountered at UGMS. And a few of these were classmates. However, the cake for the best one-hour lecture in my life would go to Prof. Nii Lomotey Engmann. It was 1982 and our courses had been packed into less time than normal when we returned from the Students Task Force. Of these, perhaps none had bewildered us more than Neuroanatomy. During our revision period, one morning, Professor Engmann walked in. He announced casually that he had heard of our struggles and proceeded to deliver a spellbinding review lecture that made all the weeks of mumbo-jumbo understandable.
Unfortunately, while our faculty got the academic excellence part right, the empathy and nurturing part fell a bit short. UGMS was hierarchical and our lecturers were seen an omnipotent Gods who could destroy a student’s career for any minor mistake. I remember that once, when a Professor announced that we should show up for lectures on Wednesday afternoons, I raised my hand and argued that we felt overwhelmed and needed our Wednesday afternoons to catch up. He seemed surprised and irritated by my push back and announced, ” You will show up!” Many of my friends, who agreed with me, warned me to stop speaking up and drawing unneeded attention from Professors! I also recall the day when a Professor told the class, “There are some of you, even when you are failing, we would pass you. There are others, even when you are passing, we would fail you”!
While there compassionate and relatable professors, a teacher should never tell a class that and such sentiments ensured that most of us were mostly on eggshells. Such incidents failed to model the habits of nurturing and empathy that are indispensable to the development of humane doctors. Hopefully, the passage of time has made such practices obsolete. But to the extent neccesary, we must protect students and make UGMS, in addition to the place of excellence that it is, a place the nurtures the spirit in addition to the mind.
Ironically, it was a few weeks after above incident that I had a conversation that profoundly changed my approach to medicine. I had gone to talk to Professor Andoh about a problem on behalf of my class when he asked me to take a seat. He said he was concerned about my generation’s training.
“We are training you to be medical technicians who can make diagnoses, write prescriptions and do surgery but you can’t connect with people”. When I asked why, he said he believed that before becoming doctors, people should be grounded in the great classics and languages. He explained that such training made future doctors more mature, compassionate and rounded in their outlook.
Another defect that I recall is our training in emergency care. I recall, as a junior clerk, having to resuscitate an unresponsive patient with a colleague of mine who shall remain anonymous. We lost the patient. Looking back, I am confident that if more experienced providers had been present, that patient might have lived. I bring this up because years later, a physician collapsed at Korle-bu and died. Hopefully, UGMS and Korle-bu can emplace an emergency treatment system worthy of our illustrious reputation.
Before getting to the theme for this celebration, let me circle back to my beginnings with UGMS. I missed my interview announcement because I didn’t have access to newspapers. Despite that and having no connections, I was admitted. That application of meritocracy, combined with its long affirmative policy towards women and underrepresented schools should make every Ghanaian proud of UGMS. Indeed, our founder President Nkrumah would be proud.
I notice that the theme of this celebration is the role of medical technology in improving the quality of medical education. It is a great theme. Since I spent 2 years teaching medicine at UCC, I have reflected a lot on our medical education. While it is a good thing that UGMS has classes about 5 times as large as when I was a student, the number of faculty, infrastructure and technology has not kept pace. At some point, I am concerned that this will begin to affect the quality of our graduates. This concern is shared by a lot of alumni and medical educators. Technology, as the President rightly pointed out, can make medical education more accessible to those who would otherwise be denied it. In addition, technologies can be deployed to augment our faculty by getting teachers/doctors in the dispora to teach our medical and postgraduate students, as well as participate in patient care.
Finally, we must work harder to engage our alumni. It would be great to have an Alumni-supported foundation with an endowment that would help improve the quality of our medical Education.
May UGMS grow from strength to strength and keep turning out graduates who, in addition to doing no harm, will make our nation healthy and proud.
Arthur Kobina Kennedy (March 27th, 2022)