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Passionate medical educator happiest at bedside

Thursday 18 November 2021 10:07am

When it comes to teaching, Professor Rob Walker is most comfortable at the bedside and small group discussions with his students.

Rob Walker image
Professor Rob Walker.

The internationally recognised medical educator, winner of the Dunedin School of Medicine’s 2021 Dean’s Medal for Excellence in Education, believes patients are the best teachers: “We act as mentors for our students to inform their clinical reasoning. We are very lucky that our patients are so willing to participate in our students’ learning experiences.

“If you ask students a question that comes out of the textbook, they can give you an answer. But if a patient has complex symptoms that don't quite add up, how do they work out what the problem is? It is this clinical reasoning to sort out what the clinical problems are and put it in the patient’s context, that is the heart of ward or bedside teaching. That's very much what we do on our teaching ward rounds.”

It is clear that the Professor of Medicine and Nephrology, a distinguished researcher and clinician whose work spans decades and crosses national and international borders, continues to find a special satisfaction in guiding students and junior doctors.

Central to this is helping the development of bedside skills, which are not learned in the classroom but activated in each individual as they are exposed to real-world scenarios.

“I wouldn't put myself in the theorists’ side of education and teaching, that's not really my area at all. It's more the hands-on delivery, being involved with students or colleagues as they progress through their medical careers.

“It's developing their clinical skills and reasoning as much as anything, which is something that's not able to be taught specifically. It’s something you have to work on and tease out with the individual student. What are they actually understanding by what the patient has told them? How do you interpret their symptoms and concerns? What are they telling you? So, it's linking their core knowledge of human pathophysiology back to the individual in front of them.”

Professor Walker developed his passion for medical education early in his career. As a senior student and junior doctor, you looked after students on your medical run. You discussed the cases they had seen and taught them how a medical ward runs. So there has been a natural progression to be more involved in teaching both medical students as well as doctors in physician training throughout his career.

He joined the Department of Medicine as a Senior Lecturer and Nephrologist in 1989 and his passion for medical education quickly became apparent.

Department of Medicine Head Professor Rachael Taylor says: “Professor Walker sees his role as Senior Medical Officer as a teaching role, leading by example, always being curious.”

Involved in teaching students from second year through to sixth year, Professor Walker has also been the convenor of the Trainee Intern year for the past 30 years. His teaching evaluations throughout this time have indicated an educator of the highest quality.

His nephrology colleagues Dr John Schollum and Dr Tracy Putt are both former students – “They’re keen on teaching and they're both excellent teachers, which is good so it's a philosophy that runs through the whole department” – and Professor Walker still gets excited to meet each year’s new intake.

“You have to be able to engage with students to get the best out of them. I enjoy teaching them so hopefully I engage well with them. The other key thing is we're very lucky that our patients are also very willing to be part of that process. We couldn't do it without their help.

“Part of being a teaching hospital is that a lot of my patients understand that that's what we do. We actively involve our patients and get them to be the teacher almost with us providing the guidance because they (the patient) have the real lived experience of that particular problem. They're very much part of the teaching process. Again, that's why the bedside type of teaching is the best.’

Outside the medical school, Professor Walker has been heavily involved with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians examination committees, as well as the advanced training programme committee for Nephrology trainees; the Australian and New Zealand Society of Nephrology as Chairman and Director of Postgraduate Education. He is a member of the Asian Pacific Society of Nephrology Continuing Medical Education Committee and the International Society of Nephrology CME committee.

A strong focus of the international roles is improving the knowledge base for nephrology trainees in developing countries, including Pacific nations.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has moved educational efforts online, in the past this has involved sponsoring trainees from developing countries to attend regional conferences so they can improve their knowledge and build networks as well as attending these educational sessions around the Asia Pacific region.

“We have a responsibility to improve the quality of care and knowledge base for nephrology trainees in these developing countries,” he says.