PROF Vishna Devi Nadarajah’s decision to pursue a master’s degree in health professions education 10 years after completing her PhD in biochemistry has reaped rewards not only for herself, but also for global medical education.
Recently, the International Medical University (IMU) deputy vice-chancellor (Institutional Development and International) became the second Malaysian and Asian – after the late IMU co-founder Dr Mei Ling Young, who was honoured in 2017 – to be bestowed with the Association for the Study of Medical Education (ASME) Gold Medal.
The medal is awarded to highly experienced scholars who have made outstanding contributions to medical education research, innovation, evaluation or practitioner inquiry.
“This is a recognition not only for me individually, but also for IMU and our country,” said Prof Vishna, who received the 2023 edition of the award at the ASME Annual Scholarship Meeting in Birmingham, the United Kingdom, on July 12.
“About 30 years ago, Malaysia only had three or four medical schools but today, we have over 30.
“This medal is a recognition for how we have developed our curriculum, trained our faculties, and conducted research in medical education,” she told StarEdu.
Prof Vishna’s transition from faculty to administration began in 2009 when under Dr Young’s encouragement, the then faculty member at the Human Biology Department at the IMU School of Medicine went on to pursue her master’s degree at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
“It was not easy to take an academic degree all over again after completing my PhD 10 years before that, but it was an opportunity to learn about curriculum design, assessment and educational theories,” she shared.
Upon the completion of her master’s degree in 2011, Prof Vishna returned to IMU and was appointed the dean of Teaching and Learning in 2014 where she became heavily involved in curricular, faculty and new programme developments at the varsity.
Subsequent appointments saw her taking on the mantle of pro vice chancellor (Education) and pro vice chancellor (Education and Institutional Development), before she assumed her current position.
Describing education as complex, Prof Vishna said it is important to take a multifactorial approach using theories, concepts, educational psychology and evidence from other literature to make informed decisions when designing a programme.
“In health professions education, you can’t just teach or design a curriculum based on your experience.
“You’re dealing with social relationships, information and knowledge, assessments, and the feelings of people. You can either motivate or demotivate a student,” she said.
Having played a crucial role in talent development for more than two decades, Prof Vishna takes great pride in her peer mentoring and student outcomes.
“I am an energetic person with new ideas who likes to try out new things, and most importantly, to put IMU on the global map,” she said.
Improving graduate outcomes
Over the years, Prof Vishna has collaborated with educators from the UK, the United States, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan and South Africa in conducting research.
“It is mutually beneficial for medical practitioners from different countries to learn from each other’s experiences,” she said.
“Currently, there are medical schools in nearly every country in the world yet on a global scale, 80% of medical education research comes from five countries, namely, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.
“In the past, it was always the knowledge from the West that took precedence. But when we look at medical education and communication with patients, there is no one right way.
“In certain countries, there are cultural contexts that make doctors communicate with patients in a certain way,” she explained.
Prof Vishna has also published and presented research papers in both biomedical sciences and medical education, supervised research students and reviewed indexed and international journals.
Recently, Prof Vishna and her research team at IMU published a paper on the communication skills of medical students in primary care settings.
“We looked into both student and patient voices to improve medical history-taking and communication with patients, and ultimately graduate better doctors.
“Similar approaches were taken for developing and enhancing cultural competence and professionalism, whereby stakeholder voices were sought and analysed.
“This is what medical education is about – we analyse the situation and context, and determine the direction in which to improve curriculum delivery and graduate outcomes,” she said.
Cognisant of the rapid technology-driven changes in the healthcare system, Prof Vishna said it is not just a matter of accepting the new developments.
“We also need to train our medical and health professions graduates to work with technology, for example, to be able to critically review the information provided by ChatGPT and enhance our own knowledge.
“They must practise the skills of data analysis and risk literacy by being reliable filters for medical information delivery outside the clinical setting, while still being compassionate and patient-centred,” she said.
Emphasising that the future of the medical field lies not only in the hands of medical doctors, but also in those of pharmacists, dentists, dietitians, nurses and clinical psychologists, Prof Vishna said the government and the private sector play a role in further professionalising all health sciences professions by creating more allied health positions in multidisciplinary healthcare teams within hospital or community settings.
Similarly, to complement the government’s efforts in addressing the current limitations of the medical officer positions, Prof Vishna believes that the private sector should not only hire these graduates, but also open postgraduate opportunities for them and play a bigger role in the future training of doctors for both specialisation and sub-specialisation.
Joint governance and responsibilities, she said, will fulfil the needs of both the country and the professionals.
“Currently, there are many independent medical practitioners in the private sector, and it’s about getting them involved in a win-win situation in training the next generation of doctors.
“If the public and private sectors work together, the Malaysian healthcare system will advance,” she said.
On her advice to early career doctors, Prof Vishna expressed the importance of having passion, teamwork and above all, curiosity.
“When you want to try something new, your curiosity will drive your resilience.
“As someone who was trained in biochemistry, it was my curiosity of how to become a better teacher, and to create a curriculum and assessment system which could be fairer and more engaging to students, that spurred my journey in global medical education,” she said, adding that upholding integrity is of equal significance.
She also said if one reaches a position of power, one should recognise one’s privilege and use it in a positive way to support one’s colleagues and students.
“Think about how you could use your voice to bring out other voices.
“When we fall from a challenge, we have to pick ourselves up, seek support and stand up again,” she concluded.
The ASME Gold Medal 2024 is now open for nominations by all members of the ASME.
Established in 1957 by the General Medical Council in the UK, the ASME promotes and conducts research on medical education.
Li Lian, 18, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. To join Star-NiE’s online youth community, go to facebook.com/niebrats.
Now that you have read the article, test your understanding by carrying out the following English language activities.
1. Prof Vishna is the recipient of the ASME Gold Medal 2023. Write a congratulatory message to her.
2. If you could nominate a Malaysian for his or her outstanding contributions to a specific field, who would the individual be? Explain your choice.
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