PMCCPMCCPMCC

Search tips
Search criteria 

Advanced

 
Logo of canfamphysLink to Publisher's site
 
Can Fam Physician. 2010 May; 56(5): 410–411.
PMCID: PMC2868604

Two years is not enough

Learning from the past, looking to the future
Kendall Noel, MD CM CCFP MEd

Graduate instruction will be advanced and intensive—the natural prolongation of the elective courses now coming into vogue.

A. Flexner, 19101

Medical education in North America has changed remarkably when we compare the practices of the past with those of today.24 A growing body of knowledge, fueled by a triumvirate of funding, research, and profit, has caused a steady increase in the quantity and quality of scientific and clinical knowledge necessary to train physicians.57 With increasing patient expectations, today’s medical graduates are expected to be far better prepared “out of the blocks” than their predecessors just a generation ago.7

With the advent of primary care reform in several provinces, better remuneration, and the recognition of family medicine as a specialty in its own right, the profession is now poised to entertain one of its original great debates: Should postgraduate training be 2 or 3 years?8,9 Let there be no mistake; the time to reconsider this debate is now, as we are currently investing a great deal of energy in redefining family medicine (eg, CanMeds–Family Medicine and the evaluation objectives).10

We have been debating the optimal length of family medicine training since before the inauguration of family medicine programs in 1966. Back then, many championed a 3-year family medicine training program similar to that of our American counterparts, but politics and fiscal restraint—not curricular rigour and academic proof—dictated the decision.

The existence of a 2-year training program in Canada and a 3-year program in the United States begs the question—which is best, 2 years or 3? Evidence favouring a 2-year program includes the success of family medicine programs here in Canada, the success of “accelerated” residency programs in the United States, and the positive effects that 2-year programs have on medical student residency choices.1114 Canadian and US governments have argued that doctor shortages and the almost prohibitive cost of medical education additionally justify the need to have 2-year family medicine training programs.13

However, others cite the decreasing hours of clinical care owing to residency contract agreements as a reason to increase the length of training programs.3,6 In Canada the argument becomes all the more relevant when one considers that some US programs are now debating whether they should increase their training to 4 years.8,1417 There is simply more for today’s physicians to learn.

Continued growth

Fortunately, medicine is a living profession with a wealth of history, and it is perhaps in studying that history that we will resolve this debate. In 1910, most medical schools in Canada required their applicants to have only their high school diplomas. Today most students have university degrees and complete 4 years of undergraduate medical training and a minimum of 2 years of postgraduate training.

While there are definite advantages to a “better-educated” family doctor population, the possibility that Parkinson’s law will come into play is great.16 Simply stated, family medicine would need to work diligently to ensure that the same material covered in a 2-year curriculum was not allowed to balloon to cover a 3-year period. A mandatory third year would have to allow for more elective study in such areas as dermatology, sports medicine, and rheumatology. As part of that year, family medicine residents should be expected to assist with running family medicine wards and family medicine units as junior staff, supervising the more junior residents and medical students working with them. The extra training would allow residents to spend time learning traditional and nontraditional (eg, colonoscopy and colposcopy) procedural skills not well covered in today’s programs.

And what of the “unintended” consequences? Perhaps we would see a decrease in the number of consultations for investigations and procedures that should be routine, thereby decreasing the costs for governments. And what of that argument about the loss of productivity when such programs are implemented? It would only be for 1 year, and although this first class would not be out practising independently after 2 years of residency, they would still be caring for Canadians. As for patients, they might benefit from shorter times to diagnosis and faster access to other specialists. With a continued focus on the importance of a balanced professional life, we might just offset any possible decrease in medical student interest caused by adding a third year.

Lessons of the past

In some ways, today’s realities mirror those of the past, and to deny today’s family medicine graduates a longer training program is to deny them the lessons of that past. Departments of family medicine must strive to produce physicians who more closely resemble master clinicians. Two years is not enough time—as the body of medical literature continues to increase, postgraduate training will necessarily need to expand, maintaining that intensity of knowledge acquisition that simply cannot be replicated without too many years of independent practice. Longer periods of training for family physicians are inevitable; they are the natural prolongation of the hunger for elective courses, third-year programs, fellowships, and rigorous continuing education activities now coming into vogue.

Footnotes

This article has been peer reviewed.

La traduction en français de cet article se trouve à www.cfp.ca dans la table des matières du numéro de mai 2010 à la page e167.

Competing interests

None declared

The opinions expressed in commentaries are those of the authors. Publication does not imply endorsement by the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

References

1. Flexner A. Medical education in the United States and Canada; a report to the Carnegie foundation for the advancement of teaching. New York, NY: Arno Press; 1972.
2. Canfield PR. Family medicine: an historical perspective. J Med Educ. 1976;51(11):904–11. [PubMed]
3. David AK, Saultz JW. Family medicine residency education: connecting the future to the past. Fam Med. 2005;37(9):635–8. [PubMed]
4. Papa FJ, Harasym PH. Medical curriculum reform in North America, 1765 to the present: a cognitive science perspective. Acad Med. 1999;74(2):154–64. [PubMed]
5. Bucholtz JR, Matheny SC, Pugno PA, David A, Bliss EB, Korin EC. Task force report 2. Report of the Task Force on Medical Education. Ann Fam Med. 2004;2(Suppl):S51–64. Available from: www.annfammed.org/cgi/reprint/2/suppl_1/s51. Accessed 2010 Jan 18.
6. Ludmerer KM, Johns MM. Reforming graduate medical education. JAMA. 2005;294(9):1083–7. [PubMed]
7. Smits AK, Walsh E, Ross RG, Gillanders WR, Saultz JW. Residency applicants’ perspectives on family medicine residency training length. Fam Med. 2006;38(3):172–6. [PubMed]
8. Vinger I. Graduate training in family medicine: two years or three. Can Fam Physician. 1979;30:1107–8. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
9. Carmichael LP. Teaching family medicine. JAMA. 1965;191(1):38–40. [PubMed]
10. Working Group on Curriculum Review . CanMEDS-family medicine. Mississauga, ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada; 2009. Available from: www.cfpc.ca/English/cfpc/education/CanMEDS/default.asp?s=1. Accessed 2010 Jan 18.
11. Duane M, Green LA, Dovey S, Lai S, Graham R, Fryer GE. Length and content of family practice residency training. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2002;15(3):201–8. [PubMed]
12. Duane M, Dovey SM, Klein LS, Green LA. Follow-up on family practice residents’ perspectives on length and content of training. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2004;17(5):377–83. [PubMed]
13. Petrany SM, Crespo R. The accelerated residency program: the Marshall University family practice 9-year experience. Fam Med. 2002;34(9):669–72. [PubMed]
14. Zweifler J. Point-counterpoint: the argument for a 2-year versus a 4-year family medicine residency. Fam Med. 2005;37(5):367–8. [PubMed]
15. Saucier D. Second thoughts on third-year training. Can Fam Physician. 2004;50:687–9. 693–5. Eng. (Fr). [PMC free article] [PubMed]
16. Winter RO. How long does it take to become a competent family physician? J Am Board Fam Pract. 2004;17(5):391–3. [PubMed]
17. Shantz JA. Battling Parkinson’s law. CMAJ. 2008;179(9):968. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Articles from Canadian Family Physician are provided here courtesy of College of Family Physicians of Canada