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Programmed for practice

Oncology Winter School

Programmed for practice

Munich 03/22/2013

In the course of a four-week program at LMU, medical students from around the world get a close-up view of the everyday routines in an oncology clinic. Taught by eminent medical specialists, they also receive invaluable help from their German “study buddies”.

Alyssa England is a student at the University of Alberta in Canada – where she is in her last semester at the institute's medical school. One might expect to find her on campus in Edmonton, reviewing what she has learned, in preparation for her finals. Instead, the petite and energetic young woman is sitting in the Evaluations Room at the University Medical Center in Großhadern, poring over computer tomography scans displayed on a monitor. Together with a Munich radiologist, she is trying to determine whether the patient concerned has a tumor and, if so, how far advanced it is. “It can be challenging to learn to interpret the images,” she says, “but it’s an important skill to possess.”

Alyssa‘s occupation with state-of-the-art medical imaging is part of the program at the annual Oncology Winter School organized jointly by the International Exchange Office in the Faculty of Medicine at LMU and the Munich International Summer University (MISU), and now in its second year. Half of this year’s 24 attendees study medicine at LMU. The others are enrolled at medical schools abroad, and hail from Turkey, Brazil, the US, Russia, Egypt, Switzerland and Iran.

In clinical training
Under the direction of experienced faculty members, the students are taken through a challenging but highly stimulating learning program. They spend the first part of the day on the oncology wards, learning the daily routines, accompanying patients from reception through diagnostic procedures to therapy sessions. The afternoons are taken up with courses on the latest diagnostic methods or therapeutic approaches, and discussion of individual case studies in small groups. In addition, they work with actors on aspects of problem-oriented communication, a vital element of the medical professional’s skill set. This gives them the opportunity to learn how to handle tasks such as breaking bad news to a patient or helping patients to cope with their fears as they face the prospect of stressful treatments.

Out and about with one’s study buddy
On weekends, there’s time to relax and enjoy what Munich and its surroundings have to offer. Students go on skiing trips together, attend a concert or a ballet, view the paintings in the Pinakothek, or visit nearby attractions such as Schloss Neuschwanstein and Salzburg. “The intensive nature of the program itself binds the group together,” says Lisa Lechner of the Medical Faculty’s International Exchange Office, who is responsible for coordinating the activities of the Winter School, and is the person to see in all organizational matters. Indeed, the atmosphere within the group is at once concentrated and composed. Clearly the round of shared activities, both at work and at leisure, serves to create a team spirit. Interactions between German and foreign students are close and very positive. A German “study buddy” is assigned to each participant from abroad, and helps to pilot his or her partner through the complexities of hospital practice.

“The value of these combinations is particularly evident when it comes to consultations with patients,” says Professor Martin Dreyling, Deputy Director of the Department of Hematology and Oncology in Großhadern, who, together with Professors Schmidmaier and Genzel-Boroviczény, designed and supervises the program for the Winter School. “The in-depth consultations and teaching rounds in the afternoons are conducted in English – but during normal medical rounds it is a great help for the foreign students to have someone who can translate the conversations.” And the study buddy doesn’t just break the language barrier. “Our international guests not only become acquainted with clinical routines, they also get a clear impression of the German healthcare system,” says Professor Dreyling. This enables them to make, and learn from, comparisons with the systems in their home countries.

Guidance for later decisions
Conversely, the 12 LMU students on the course have an opportunity to intensify their contacts with international partner universities and, for instance, may choose to take part in a similar program to be held at the I.M. Sechenov Medical University in Moscow in August. “For me, the most important thing about the Winter School is that it broadens one’s perspective,” says Hendrik Engelke, who is in his 9th semester at LMU. “Oncology is an enormously wide field – and the School gives me the chance, over the course of four weeks, to get to know many of its facets. And that will be a great help when I have to decide what I want to specialize in later on.”

Over the past few weeks, as well as getting to know the day-to-day routines on the wards, the students have been introduced to clinical laboratory work, familiarized themselves with radiology or hyperthermia, tried their hand at image-based functional diagnostics, gone through intensive training sessions in interpersonal communication, visited the Rehabilitation Clinic in Bad Trissl, and attended the weekly oncological review conducted by the staff specialists at the Medical Center. “This week’s conference was held in English – for our benefit,” says Victor Söderström, also in his 9th semester at Medical School. During the final week of the course, the focus is on the field of palliative care.

After that, the international students return to the more familiar worlds of their own universities. Alyssa is glad to have been exposed to such a concentrated dose of oncology before she embarks on her residency back home. “I was interested in gaining more experience managing oncological conditions and working with oncology patients before starting residency in Canada”, she says. She has not only learned more about her subject, she also fell in love with Munich. “It’s one of my very favorite cities”, she says. So she may well come again, to work or to visit. – But maybe next time, she’ll come over in the summer.

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