From bench to bedside: Training the next generation of physician-scientists

Faculty of Medicine
Medicine
Education
Students

By Tiffany Barnes-Huggins

Marketing and Communications Officer | Agente de marketing et de la communication, Faculty of Medicine | Faculté de médecine

student-researcher using microscope
istock
The MD/PhD program is fostering a new generation of physician-scientists who have the ability to transform Canada’s research and medical practices. These unique learners are bringing the bench to the bedside, and they require support to sustain these critical innovations.

The MD/PhD program in the Faculty of Medicine was created with the bold ambition to train future leaders in the health sciences.

The program consists of 7 years – 2 pre-clerkship years at the MD level, 3 years at the PhD level and the final 2 clerkship years at the MD level.

It fulfills a growing need in the healthcare sector for individuals who can bridge the gap between the clinical side of medicine, the pursuit of scientific discovery and the capacity to translate scientific evidence into practice and policy.

With only 4 students admitted per incoming MD class, it is a demanding program that fosters the potential and excellence of learners that will go on to become physician-scientists. 

The diversity of people and experiences that learners are privy to in the program is one of its most enriching features.

“In my PhD right now, I have the opportunity to work with so many patients from different walks of life and receive mentorship from incredible basic scientists, surgeons and internal medicine specialists. It makes my training so unique to have expertise from these different angles. That's definitely been the best part of this experience for me,” expresses Dhanuddara Mohottalage, a third-year learner in the program.

Dhanuddara Mohottalage

“I have the opportunity to work with so many patients from different walks of life and receive mentorship from incredible basic scientists, surgeons and internal medicine specialists.”

Dhanuddara Mohottalage, 3rd year MD/PhD learner.

For Sébastien Maillé, who is currently completing his 6th year, he has learned a lot about his resilience through his experiences in the program.

“Having gotten this far in the program, it has shown me what I am capable of and gives me the confidence to know that if there's any other challenge that comes up farther down the road, I can tackle it,” Maillé says.

Sébastien Maillé

“Having gotten this far in the program, it has shown me what I am capable of and gives me the confidence to know that if there's any other challenge that comes up farther down the road, I can tackle...”

Sébastien Maillé, 6th year MD/PhD learner.

The importance of physician-scientists for Canadians

The long-term benefits of training students in the basic sciences and clinical care are abundant. Particularly in the event of unexpected health emergencies like the pandemic.

“When medical crises are happening in real time, it’s important to have the skills to problem solve and identify how to communicate with a variety of audiences within the medical sector and the patient population. These are the skills you build on the research side, which also become very applicable to medicine,” explains Melissa Phuong, a 7th year learner in the program.

Melissa Phuong
Melissa Phuong, 7th year MD/PhD learner.

The bench to bedside nature of the program also allows learners to develop a more holistic understanding of how to treat patients.

“I think when you get the opportunity to really look deeply at a patient's health from both a clinical and scientific perspective, it gives you a great deal of compassion and a better understanding of patient-centered care,” reflects Mohottalage.

Supporting future healthcare leaders

The costs of pursuing two disciplines at once are high, and learners need support to ensure they have a sustainable future in the program.

When the program first began, learners received government funding that covered the full extent of both of their degrees. In 2018, things changed, and learners no longer received dedicated funding for the MD portion of their degrees.

While all of the students are committed to succeeding in the program and extremely resilient, some have shared that access to more scholarships and flexible funding could lessen the financial burden.

At the same time, the program also requires support to continue to innovate and create an enabling environment for its learners to succeed and thrive.

Administrators of the MD/PhD program are formulating ways to provide learners with more networking, mentoring and assisted learning opportunities. These opportunities are meant to support learners in transitioning between the two disciplines over the course of the program and in connecting them with real world physician-scientists.

“I am definitely interested in meeting with people who graduated from the program to learn what they did with their career. I’d like to know how they decided what they wanted to do because it can be hard to know what's available,” expresses Sarah Mckeague, a first year MD/PhD learner.

Sarah Mckeague
Sarah Mckeague, first year MD/PhD learner.

This unique group of learners have the capacity to uncover and create exceptional innovations on both the research and clinical side of medicine. It’s imperative that this program and its learners receive the support needed to foster the physician-scientists of the future.

Consider supporting the University of Ottawa.

The MD-PhD fund provides financial support to students during the MD portion of the MD-PhD program at the Faculty of Medicine.