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Why not start teaching (some) medicine in elementary school?


Valérie Junod


I am lucky to be in good health, rarely ever falling sick. Yet now that I have children, I (re)discovered what disease means. Rarely a month goes by without one of the kids being “down” with something. After a while, I realized that I wouldn’t disturb pediatricians for every occurrences of high fever, unexplained moaning and disquieting drowsiness. It was a lesson hard learned with too many night visits to the hospital emergency room (ER). But eventually I learned some precious lessons, such as the value of combining paracetamol and mefenamic acid or the importance of not bringing my baby to the ER on an empty stomach (he might be denied food and milk, making things much more painful for both the baby and the parents).

But a more general point I got out of my not-so-happy experiences is the following: why are we not taught anything about medicine?

You might answer me: because, at the university, you chose to study law, not medicine. But this is precisely the argument I want to make. Rudimentary medical and pharmacologic notions should be taught at school, starting with elementary school – and yes, I checked it's not, at least not in Switzerland. Such basic knowledge should not be left as an option to those who aim at practicing as doctors.

Many (interrelated) reasons justify this viewpoint.

First, we always hear that educated patients are better patients, more likely to explain their symptoms correctly and more likely adhere to the prescribed treatment. But who is in charge of educating us, as patients? Really no one. We might wish it would be the realm of doctors, but they have really so little time to spare, that teaching their patients is not within their daily responsibilities. So if the doctors aren’t doing it, it makes sense that the State should undertake the task, most effectively by having it part of the school curriculum.

Second reason: teaching basic medical knowledge would prove fun and interesting to children. As highly egocentric beings, children are fascinated by the working of their own bodies. They are already asking from a very young age "why are my nails growing daily, not my nose?” “why do I bleed?” “what’s this scar I now have?” Parents are usually ill-at-ease with providing a satisfactory explanation, one that would lead to a fruitful dialogue with the child. We tend to give a boilerplate answer: “you bleed because your body contains blood.” True of course, but missing so much of the reality.

Third reason: children fall sick all the time and they want to understand what’s happening to them. From a very young age, they are asking: “Why do I have fever?” “Why do you say I got it from my sister?” “Why must I have a shot?” By giving them full answers, we help them make sense of the unpleasant occurrences they must face. At the same time, we help them grow as autonomous independent individuals. They are not just the passive recipient of a vaccine, they come to understand the reason underlying the measure and may even feel like an active participant in the care dispensed.

Fourth reason: we as a population are going to grow older and older. Instead of dying swiftly, we have come to accept that death will be a slow and rather disagreeable process spread over many years. As we age, we’ll get to experience comorbidities, multiple concurrent treatments, and probably institutionalized and palliative care. I am seeing how our grandparents or parents are going through this phase with unfortunately too little medical knowledge, and hence too little ability to have a fair discussion with their healthcare providers. It is sad and even scary to see loved ones completely surrender to a doctor because they lack the ability to make informed decisions in an (admittedly) very challenging medical context. For this to change, medical education should be a priority from early on.

Fifth reason: not only are we caring (the best we can) for our children, we are also caring for our aging parents. Incidentally, we are learning about cancer treatments, Alzheimer’s treatment, high blood pressure management. And each time we start from scratch, that is, fromnear zero prior medical knowledge. This is just maddening: those are among the most important decisions we may need to make and yet we are so ignorant.

So the recommendation is simple: start teaching medicine as early as first grade and continue in small doses until university. This is really not so difficult. To begin with, the internet is replete with easy-to-grasp explanations. The role of the teacher is then to ensure the reliability of the content and to highlight its relevance.

Some may respond that schools do teach biology and chemistry, which constitute building blocks for medicine at university. True, but although it is, of course, relevant to know how a cell functions, it's not the same as being taught why one suffers from diabetes or how insulin was discovered as a treatment. The same holds for the “healthy living tips” that elementary schools are prone to impart: useful, but not enough.

Others will object that “a little knowledge is dangerous”, possibly leading to flawed decisions. Yet I remain convinced that no knowledge is worse. Anyway, the “no-knowledge” option is not really on the table, because, at some point or another in our lives, we will have no choice but to face reality and learn the facts necessary to reach a medical decision, whether for ourselves or for our family. Because autonomy and informed consent have become ineluctable, this choice is inescapably ours. Hence, we should choose as best as we can, and not on the basis of hurried information acquired at the very last minute.

Briefly put, the school teaching curriculum should ideally include all knowledge that is helpful for kids to ultimately lead good lives. Teaching medicine fits this bill.


Disclosure statement

No financial support and no other potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.


Valérie Junod, PhD, Professeure associée, Département de droit des affaires et fiscalité, Université de Lausanne; Professeure titulaire pour l'enseignement à option "Droit pharmaceutique", Université de Genève.