A training course on conducting systematic reviews, established for University of Cambridge medical students in 2018, provides a blueprint for medical schools that wish to offer similar training. The course has successfully provided the Cambridge students with the knowledge and skills they need to conduct systematic reviews, alongside opportunities to work with researchers on ongoing reviews.
Systematic reviews are a key component of evidence-based healthcare. Being able to conduct a systematic review is a core skill for clinical researchers and the ability to find and appraise evidence is important for all clinicians.
Elements of the systematic review process are often included in medical school curricula but Dr Juliet Usher-Smith, Professor Simon Griffin (Prevention Group, Primary Care Unit) and Isla Kuhn (head of Medical Library Services) saw the scope for additional bespoke training combined with real-life experience with researchers conducting reviews and set up a medical student systematic review group alongside a team of researchers. The training they devised is now in its fourth year.
Their article in Medical Education, published on 1 September 2021, provides pointers to other medical schools who might be considering such training.
In the first year, in 2018, the training consisted of four one hour interactive lectures in the early evenings working through the key stages of a systematic review using a single chosen published review as an example. Based on student evaluation, the team adapted the course in the second year to three lectures and three practical sessions. Then, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the third year, they adapted the course for online delivery. For this, they ran six sessions over 3 weeks, each combining both theory-based and small group practical elements and making use of cloud-based software to facilitate group work.
Since 2018, when the course started, 231 from a potential pool of 812 medical students attended the training and over 90% of students agreed that objectives were met, the sessions were worthwhile and that they would recommend the training to other students.
“Very informative and look forward to potentially being part of a systematic review in the near future.” (student)
To provide opportunities for students to learn by contributing to a review, the team invited researchers from across the biomedical campus to submit projects. Students were invited to rank the projects which were then allocated based on their preferences.
One hundred and seventy-seven students expressed an interest in contributing to a review, and 143 were successfully matched with researchers.
“The whole process has really solidified the fact I would like to do some research in the future.” (student)
“I think there are benefits to both parties, students can help screen what is often very large volumes of papers in exchange for the experience and being listed on the publication.” (researcher hosting students to contribute to systematic reviews)
At least 25 students have been co-authors on peer-reviewed publications so far, and all those who completed projects in the first 2 years would recommend getting involved in a systematic review to other students.
“I didn’t really have a clue about systematic reviews at the start of this year. So to now have been involved with a very interesting cardiovascular one with the potential for publication has been a fantastic opportunity!” (student)
One challenge the group experienced in the first year was balancing the expectations of the students and researchers in relation to co-authorship on publications. This was solved by including clarification for researchers that the expectation was that students would be offered co-authorship if they met the ICMJE criteria. Isla Kuhn, course co-director, explained that this approach could be a useful model for other medical schools to develop similar initiatives.
This experience demonstrates that our approach is scalable, can be delivered remotely and is effective at providing medical students with the knowledge, skills and real-world experience of an important research method. We also learned the importance of practical hands-on training in systematic review methods and the benefit of integrating this with the more theoretical aspects.”
– Dr Juliet Usher-Smith, course director
The course was supported by funding from the Academy of Medical Sciences INSPIRE awards.
About the Medical Student Systematic Review Group
Read the article
Queries: Lucy Lloyd, Communications, Primary Care Unit
Image: Dr Hannah Harrison training Cambridge medical students in conducting systematic reviews