Professor Naomi Low-Beer played a lead role in curriculum design and implementation at LKCMedicine, Imperial's joint medical school in Singapore.
Professor Naomi Low-Beer is coming to the end of her term as Vice-Dean (Education) at LKCMedicine – a joint medical school between Imperial and Nanyang Technology University (NTU).
Since 2011, she has played a lead role in designing and implementing the MBBS curriculum at LKCMedicine which is now renowned for its innovative approach to medical education. Professor Low-Beer is taking on a challenge closer to home and will be founding Dean of Brunel Medical School which is expected to welcome its first medical students in September 2021.
From St Mary's to Singapore
After 23 years of close association with Imperial, Professor Low-Beer reflects on her academic journey that started at St Mary’s Hospital as a clinical researcher in Professor Jonathan Weber’s HIV group and ended in Singapore as Vice-Dean for Education at LKCMedicine.
“Imperial and LKCMedicine have been such an important part of my professional life, and even though I have been based in Singapore in the role of Vice-Dean Education, I feel closely connected to both the London and Singapore schools. I am proud of what both institutions have created, and while I am sad to be moving on, I feel excited about being able to transfer so much of what I’ve learned in this role, to a new medical school at Brunel.”
In 2013, she took a sabbatical from her clinical role as Consultant Gynaecologist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – initially for a period of one year – to focus on LKCMedicine in its early operational phase – but stayed for seven years, seeing the school through a number of milestones.
“It's been a great privilege being able to start from scratch but also draw on some of the most successful parts of the Imperial MBBS curriculum – such as focusing on the patient experience, communication skills, and learning in the primary care setting. In Singapore, these approaches have been recognised as particularly relevant and have had major impact."
Emphasis on team-based learning
"One of our key achievements was to completely replace face-to-face lectures across the five-year course, with team-based learning (TBL) delivered using a technology-enabled system. That’s quite a distinctive achievement and something the school has become internationally recognised for.”
LKCMedicine’s investment in digital tools and TBL has meant that adapting teaching for an online format in the time of COVID-19 was relatively straightforward.
“In normal times students are in groups of six seated at round tables in a large learning studio; we’ve been able to replicate the same pedagogical approach in a lockdown situation with students in their own homes. The systematic delivery of activities and assessments works in exactly the same way over Zoom, with teamwork occurring in chat rooms. One of the benefits of TBL is team cohesion which leads to team learning and peer support. Being able to continue this approach at a time of relative social isolation has been much valued by students.”
A curriculum that puts students first
In her initial role as Curriculum Development Lead and later as Vice-Dean for Education, it is clear that Professor Low-Beer has always been dedicated to developing a curriculum that best fosters the next generation of doctors.
“On the ground, LKCMedicine is known as a school where there's a strong support system and where the student voice is heard. The value of this has been borne out by students’ positive feedback about the support they receive, the approachability of the faculty, and about the way the school listens and responds to their concerns. The students’ voice has also brought a sense of partnership and community, where staff, students and faculty all feel engaged.
“We’ve introduced a house system where students remain members of the same house throughout the five-year course. Regular house meetings include sessions on self-care and stress management, as well as information sharing about education matters. During these meetings, students check-in with their peers and have one-to-one meetings with their tutors, and these relationships develop over time. So when students go through difficult times, it is often their house tutor or other students, peers or seniors from the same house, that they first turn to."
Imperial – LKCMedicine partnership
Professor Low-Beer notes how important certain figures at Imperial – past and present – have been in helping to fulfil LKCMedicine’s vision and ambition for education, naming Professor Jenny Higham and Professor Martyn Partridge as having made key contributions during the early stages, Professor Dermot Kelleher who played an important role in the lead up to the school’s opening in 2013, and Professor Simone Buitendijk who was a consistent champion of the Imperial – LKCMedicine partnership throughout her tenure as Vice-Provost for Education.
“The level of support from Imperial has changed over the years. In the early stages there were important decisions to make about recruitment of education faculty, pedagogical innovations and the set-up of processes and procedures. More recently, Martin Lupton and senior members of his faculty team have made really important contributions to decisions about students in difficulty, whether due to mental health, professionalism or academic issues. I know that my LKCMedicine colleagues have really appreciated having Imperial’s voice in all these discussions and I have found this support personally very valuable too.”
Professor Low-Beer notes the key role played by Professor Lionel Lee, former LKCMedicine Executive Vice-Dean, in establishing key external relationships within Singapore, and nurturing the Imperial-NTU partnership. This was particularly important during periods of leadership transition at Imperial.
Once the school was fully operational, with its first cohort of students in place, Professor Low-beer credits the visionary leadership of Professor James Best, LKCMedicine’s first full-time Dean, as instrumental in establishing and communicating the school’s identity as a joint medical school. She also recognises the outstanding contribution of the school’s local clinical faculty who worked in partnership with Imperial faculty to develop the curriculum; one of the distinctive features of the LKCMedicine curriculum is the way clinicians make a significant contribution to teaching even in the early years of the course.
"Their commitment, educational expertise and willingness to embrace innovation has been remarkable. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the role of Professor Pang Weng Sun, Vice-Dean for Clinical Affairs, a highly regarded clinical leader who has led the recruitment of so many talented clinician educators to LKCMedicine. He also oversees engagement with over 15 healthcare institutions responsible for the clinical training of LKCMedicine students. The success of any medical school is dependent on high-quality relationships with healthcare partners and Professor Pang’s role has been crucial.”
Professor Low-Beer notes how over the years the educational partnership between the two medical schools has grown. In particular, students of both schools have benefitted from projects and experiences involving interactions between London and Singapore. In addition, there have been important gains to both schools in terms of shared learning and new educational practices.
“It is exciting to see approaches adopted by LKCMedicine, such as TBL, mobile technology and flipped classroom learning, feeding back into Imperial curriculum. And LKCMedicine continues to derive benefit from new approaches at Imperial, most recently in relation to innovations in assessment and the use of new digital learning tools."
With both schools recognised for their strengths in medical education, Professor Low-Beer notes that one important achievement was the launch in 2018 of the joint medical education conference Transform Med Ed, with extensive engagement of faculty from both schools. The conference was able to attract an impressive line-up of internationally renowned speakers, with the participation of over 400 delegates from 15 countries. Whilst the second conference in March 2020 had to be postponed due to COVID-19, this represents an exciting opportunity for continued collaboration.
More recently, the Imperial - LKCMedicine partnership, now well established in undergraduate education, has extended to involve a greater focus on research and graduate education. This development represents an important way in which the nature of the partnership has progressed over time.
Linking research with education
Professor Low-Beer has seen first-hand the value of augmenting a clinical career with research, with her own career in obstetrics and gynaecology having benefitted from a period spent undertaking research into HIV. More recently her research has been in medical education – she is a firm believer that just as medical practice should be research-informed and evidence-based, educational practice should also be informed by the latest research and scholarship.
When asked about the future direction of LKCMedicine, Professor Low-Beer hopes that that teaching practice will continue to be the subject of ongoing research, in particular to investigate the impact of LKCMedicine’s approaches on graduate outcomes. In addition, she believes that biomedical research and an understanding of research methodology must continue to be incorporated into the content of the curriculum to forge science-aware doctors.
"When we started LKCMedicine, we were keen to ensure students would benefit from a strong foundational understanding of science and scientific method, and Professor Mike Ferenczi, as Assistant Dean for Years 1 and 2 (and later Vice-Dean, Faculty Affairs) played a key role in doing this, based on his experience at Imperial. He helped identify high-quality Imperial lectures that could be incorporated into TBL classes and introduced a range of science practical and data analysis classes. In the early stages, we had very few research faculty at LKCMedicine, but over the years the numbers have grown and Professor Ferenczi has been instrumental in drawing large numbers of research faculty into teaching, and in the delivery of a six-week research experience for our students in their fourth year.
"At a time when medicine is changing so rapidly, we need doctors with critical thinking skills who make judgments based on academic understanding. Some may wish to pursue a clinician-scientist career and may be inspired to do so through their research experience at medical school. Looking ahead, there is scope to provide additional research opportunities for LKCMedicine students who show particular interest, potentially in the form of an intercalated year. This could include opportunities to leverage on the growing number of research collaborations between faculty at Imperial and LKCMedicine.”
It’s safe to say that Professor Low-Beer’s legacy shines on at LKCMedicine and Imperial. She pays tribute to Professor James Best whom she cites as an invaluable role model and mentor. But when asked about the proudest achievement of her career, it is the students and medical graduates that are the greatest source of pride.
“It has given me great satisfaction to see successive cohorts of students flourishing in a uniquely hybrid culture. I have found Singaporean students to be generally very diligent, focused and academically outstanding. But what has impressed me the most is their creativity, support for each other and their contribution to the wider community."
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