Established in 1996, Penang Medical College (PMC) has become a premier medical college and was recently conferred a six-star rating by the Ministry of Higher Education. This month, PMC produces its 1,000th graduate. Sharyljit Kaur sits with its President, Brendan Lyons, to talk about PMC’s success.
SHARYLJIT KAUR: Can you give us a brief background about the PMC?
BRENDAN LYONS: A little before PMC was established, USM had transferred its medical school from Penang to Kota Bharu. A number of medical professionals here in Penang thought that Penang should have its own medical school. One of them was Datuk Dr Geoffrey Gaik who happened to be a graduate from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI). He decided to approach his old college to see if they were interested, and they were. Together with the University College Dublin (UCD), they decided to establish a medical school here in Penang. These are the two biggest medical schools in Ireland and, we would argue, the most prestigious ones.
Institutions and people who were part of the venture were the Penang State Government, RCSI, UCD and Dr Gaik. We took in our first students in 1996, all 14 of them, and they went to Dublin, because even from the very beginning that was the way we operated. We ask our students to do their pre-clinical education in Ireland and their clinical training here in Penang.
Right now, PMC is fully owned by the RCSI and UCD because in the beginning of last year, these two colleges bought out the Penang state government’s stake.
PMC’s program is very novel wherein students do their preclinical years in Dublin and their clinical years in Penang. Why is this so?
The clinical training that we can give them in Malaysia is better than what they are likely to get in most other places in the world. It’s probably better than it is in Ireland, the UK and the US and that is because, at this stage, Malaysian medicine in the public hospitals isn’t as specialised as it might be elsewhere in the world. So from the point of view of teaching a student, that means that when we take them into the ward, they can see a very wide variety of cases. It also means our students are exposed in their clinical training to the Malaysian pattern of healthcare and illnesses, so they see things like malaria and dengue fever which you wouldn’t see very often in Ireland. Also when they are doing dermatology, they learn that skin diseases look different and some diseases that are more endemic here look different on an Asian person than they would on a European.
Our students are well and truly versed in the Malaysian pattern of healthcare and also how the system works. So when they graduate in June and then they start their internship in September, they are fairly ready to hit the ground running, whereas somebody coming back from overseas, I’m not knocking it, would have a learning curve, even though they are Malaysians and coming back into their own country.
We also agreed that it would be useful for the students to be taken out of Malaysia and to have to compete with students from Ireland, the EU, North America and Canada. This gives them good international exposure. In addition to that, we also know that the students receive a very rigorous scientific education in Ireland which is quite different from what they are exposed to in high school. It is a lot more demanding and it will require a lot more individual effort and independent thinking. That has proved to be the case because, while we still want our students and graduates to be as outgoing as possible, they may not be as outgoing as we would like. The feedback that we get from the doctors that we deal with in the hospitals is that our students ask more questions than others.
What are the advantages of students pursuing the PMC program as compared to pursuing a full time medical programme overseas?
A reason for doing a joint programme, half here and half in Ireland, is that it means that the cost then lies somewhere between the cost of a fully local five-year medical programme and a fully foreign five-year medical programme. They are the two extremes and we are in the middle, so it is more affordable for people and for sponsoring agencies that sponsor students as well.
How many students are in the programme currently?
We recruit 150 per year. At the moment in Dublin we have two classes of 150 each and then here in Penang, because the numbers have been growing, we have about three classes with 110 to 120 each. The growth has been largely to accommodate students from JPA and Mara which are sending their students here. We will be reaching a milestone when PMC will be graduating its 1000th graduate this month.
Are the students that come to PMC mostly from Penang?
They come from all over the country. A year or two ago I did a profile of where our students come from and they are pretty well in proportion to the population centres in Malaysia. So majority would come from KL and about 10% come from Penang.
PMC was recently conferred a six-star rating for medical colleges by the Ministry of Higher Education. Can you please elaborate?
We are subjected to a lot of accreditations. We are accredited by the Malaysian Medical Council, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, we are accredited separately by the Irish Medical Council and we have been accredited as part of the Royal College of Surgeons Degree Awarding Process and their external accreditors. We are now a part of the Quality Assurance and Quality Development Program of the Royal College of Surgeons and UCD
We were subjected to an audit by the Ministry of Higher Education on our programme and facilities, an accreditation process that happens every two years. The next audit would be later this year.
There was a small survey done last year on the preparedness of medical graduates for internship by the Malaysian Medical Council and PMC was one of the top colleges to come out of that survey.
PMC’s philosophy is encapsulated in the “PMC Doctor”. What is the “PMC Doctor”?
The philosophy is to remind us of what we are supposed to be doing, how to go about doing it and to systematise our thinking. We interview every candidate before we take them and they must do well in their academic results, have good character and be scientifically aware.
Once they have been accepted, we then send them to Dublin for two-and-a-half years where they go through rigorous scientific training as there is a good research environment in Ireland.
We want our doctors to be independent and to ask a lot of questions. Irish students are not shy about asking questions and being loud. Malaysian students may be a little bit more reserved, so that quality will rub off on the Malaysian students.
We try to instil self management in our students which is important when you are a doctor because while a doctor is working in an organisation like a hospital, they are still very much an agent on their own and their time will have to be managed by themselves.
The emphasis in our teaching is not just to acquire knowledge but also to have good habits, to be questioning, to be good at decision making, to understand the law, to appreciate ethics and to work ethically. We also want them to be skilled when they go for their internship, to be good communicators. We devote time to that. We want them to be able to communicate in the full sense of the word, where they listen to the patient and appreciate what the patient is telling them and then they can use their decision making skills to make a diagnosis and decision, and to communicate that back to the patient or to refer the patient to the right channel if necessary.
We want PMC students to have a curious mind so that they can continue to study after they leave because it is a lifelong learning experience and medics have to keep themselves up to date. We foster values of professionalism, proficiency and focus on patient safety. All those values are found in the PMC Doctor.