Fortifying the foundation of health professions education

Feb 19, 2021

Nikki WoodsPhoto Credit - UHN Stride Team Professor Nicole Woods wants to see more expertise from fields beyond the basic sciences incorporated into medical education.

Traditionally, the study of medicine has focused heavily on disciplines like physiology, biochemistry and anatomy, says Woods. Though it’s a strong foundation, she believes it could be enhanced with a greater emphasis on knowledge from fields like psychology or anthropology.

In her roles as the Richard and Elizabeth Currie Chair in Health Professions Education Research at the Wilson Centre — an appointment she began on January 1, 2021 — and an education scientist in DFCM’s Office of Education Scholarship, Woods works to embrace multiple disciplines and rethink what kinds of knowledge are viewed as foundational to medical practice.

“If the role of basic science is to help you understand “why” — which is what my research shows — any form of knowledge that helps people understand why they do what they do could be considered a ‘basic science’ and could be foundational to medicine,” says Woods, who is also the Wilson Centre’s Associate Director of Operations and an associate professor in DFCM.

Woods sees opportunity to incorporate understanding from other disciplines into medical education. She’d like other disciplines to play a greater part in shaping training for future health care practitioners.

“What about integrating the behavioural, cognitive or social sciences? If you have a physician who has a really good understanding of social dynamics, sociology and other areas like these, how would that change what they do with their patients tomorrow? That’s a big opportunity for us,” she says.

Woods, who is also the Director of The Institute for Education Research at University Health Network, holds a PhD in cognitive psychology. Her work focuses on human memory and categorization.

Just as Woods’ work broadens the range of subjects that could be considered essential to medical education, her Excel Lab attracts students from a similarly wide range of programs. The lab works to develop new ways of thinking about how to design curriculum and teach future health care providers.

Graduate students in the lab, which Woods leads with professor Maria Mylopoulos, come from disciplines that have included dentistry, pharmacy and audiology. This academic diversity is one aspect of work that excites Woods.

“We’re all working to develop models of expertise and ways to build experts, so I get to collaborate with people who I wouldn’t have a chance to interact with in a siloed program where everyone is in a single field,” Woods says.

“This work speaks to people across many professions. Cognitive psychology is about the everyday human experience and reasoning. And when people enter professional programs and move into the professional realm, their minds don’t fundamentally change. They just think about different things. So, as long as I’m studying the process of thinking, I can talk to anybody. And it’s a lot of fun doing that.”

In addition to expanding the scope of health professions education research, Woods is also working to make the field more inclusive.

“It’s important for young Black people to see that science is possible for them. I want to create space for them to be here with me,” says Woods. “That’s part of my idea for the chair. I hope down the line there will be young Black men and women who know this is an option for them as a career. That they can be an education scientist or an institute director. We can be leaders in science and medicine.”

Professor Mahan Kulasegaram, Director of DFCM’s Office of Education Scholarship, was himself a student of Woods.

"Wood's work on integrated instruction — connecting different foundational disciplines directly to clinical knowledge and reasoning — answers questions that have plagued educators for over a century”, explains Kulasegaram. “The principles derived from her research in this area have travelled from the 'education lab' to classroom and clinics around the world including at the University of Toronto's MD program. As an OES scientist, she exemplifies our 'better together' philosophy for growing education scholarship through collaboration, mentorship, and leadership."