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Friday, April 09, 2021

Should we teach genomics and evolution to medical students?

Rama Singh,1 a biology professor at McMaster Universtiy in Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) has just published an interesting article on The Conversation website. It's about Medical schools need to prepare doctors for revolutionary advances in genetics. You can read the full article yourself but let me highlight the last few paragraphs to start the discussion.

Future physicians will be part of health networks involving medical lab technicians, data analysts, disease specialists and the patients and their family members. The physician would need to be knowledgeable about the basic principles of genetics, genomics and evolution to be able to take part in the chain of communication, information sharing and decision-making process.

This would require a more in-depth knowledge of genomics than generally provided in basic genetics courses.

Much has changed in genetics since the discovery of DNA, but much less has changed how genetics and evolution are taught in medical schools.

In 2013-14 a survey of course curriculums in American and Canadian medical schools showed that while most medical schools taught genetics, most respondents felt the amount of time spent was insufficient preparation for clinical practice as it did not provide them with sufficient knowledge base. The survey showed that only 15 per cent of schools covered evolutionary genetics in their programs.

A simple viable solution may require that all medical applicants entering medical schools have completed rigorous courses in genetics and genomics.

Here's the problem. I've just finished research on a book about modern evolution and genomics so I think I know a little bit about the subject. I'm also on the editorial board of a journal that publishes research on biochemistry and molecular biology education. I've written a biochemistry textbook and I have far too many years of experience trying to teach this material to graduate students and undergraduates at the University of Toronto. I can safely say that we (university teachers) have done a horrible job of teaching evolution and genomics to our students. We have turned out an entire generation of students who don't understand modern molecular evolution and don't understand what's in your genome.

What this means is that there's an extremely small pool of students who have completed "rigorous courses in genetics and genomics." Nobody will be able to apply to medical school. I doubt that we could teach this material to medical students with or without the appropriate background.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Some people have tried to teach this material to health science workers so we can see how it's working at that level. Take a look at the The Genomics Education Programme supported by the NHS in the United Kingdom. They have a series of short videos and longer lessons that are designed to educate health care specialists. Here's the blurb that defines their objective.

Rapid advances in technology and understanding mean that genomics is now more relevant than ever before. As genomics increasingly becomes a part of mainstream NHS care, all healthcare professionals, and not just genomics specialists, need to have a good understanding of its relevance and potential to impact the diagnosis, treatment and management of people in our care.

In 2014, Health Education England (HEE) launched a four-year £20 million Genomics Education Programme (GEP) to ensure that our 1.2 million-strong NHS workforce has the knowledge, skills and experience to keep the UK at the heart of the genomics revolution in healthcare.

Funding for the programme has since been extended to enable us to continue our work in providing co-ordinated national direction of education and training in genomics and developing resources for a wide range of professionals.

They describe genes as 'coding' genes that build proteins. There's no mention of noncoding genes. The define a genome as "both genes (coding) and non-coding DNA." They also say that your genome is all of the DNA in our cells (46 chromosomes, 23 pairs). I don't see anything in their education packages that covers modern molecular evolution. In one of the packages they say,

The term ‘junk DNA’ has been used since the 1970s to describe non-coding regions of the genome, but today it is considered inaccurate and misleading. The term ‘junk’ suggests that 98% of the genome has no use, but in recent years, studies and projects have used advances in technology to shed light on these regions and have come to different conclusions about how much of the genome has a biological function.

Here's a link to a short video called What is a genome?. I recommend that you watch it to see the level that these experts think is suitable for health care professionals in the UK and to see the level of expertise of those who made the video. This is what seven years of work by experts and £20 million will get you.

All of this tells me that teaching genomics and evolution to medical students is going to be a lot more difficult than Rama Singh imagines. Not only would we have to counter several years of misinformation but we would have to rely on teachers who probably don't understand either topic.

Let's start by teaching these things correctly to biology and biochemistry majors. That's going to be hard enough for now.

1. Full displosure: Rama and I shared an NSERC grant in 1981 on genetic variation in Drosophila.


  1. There is no reason to teach evolution or any mechanism claim for how biology got to where it is for doing medicine. Medical knowledge is only about what is here and thats all that is needed. How it got here is irrelevant. Creationists are excellent medical people while rejecting evolutionism.
    Its just adding irrelevant complicated more info to what should be limited and increasing specialist.
    As to genetics the same thing. Few need to know it for some special cases where it might be useful.
    There is enough problems in Canadian medical schools without more wrong ideas introduced. Hmm. I do think creationist ideas in minor ways could lead to better healing etc.

    1. One of the most important creationist ideas is that disease is caused by the Devil who is punishing you for your behavior. The Devil likes people who are evil and wicked so he concentrates on punishing people who obey God and try to be good.

      In order to reduce or eliminate disease we should probably encourage more people to be wicked.

    2. Funny. Yet this was never taught since the protestant reformation. While Satan would, and is , behind the decay and death in biology it still would of been taught it was the fall, of adam etc, that brought sickness. medicine became the best in the protestant nations because people think it can be healed including with gods help.
      Never would Satan be so hands on as to make good people sicker then bad ones. this was nevre said.
      We don't say it today. We say god brings healing but we need vitamins.
      Anyways I think , in minor ways, creationism would move healing forward especially in replacing the BRAIN with simply a MIND, or rather a memory organ. Then all interference with human thought and dealing with pain would have more hope of being fixed RATHER then hard wiring of a complicated BRAIN.
      likewise seeing genetics as not fixed but a flexible thing might lead to better ways to trigger it for healing, up to the point of serious decay with time.
      presumptions would stifle imagination if they were wrong.

    3. In order to reduce or eliminate disease we should probably encourage more people to be wicked.
      In order to do so with the fewest negative effects, we should commit a sin that is pleasant for us and does no harm to others, but is one that makes God very, very unhappy. I suggest the wearing of clothing that mixes different kinds of fibers (Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11).

    4. " I suggest the wearing of clothing that mixes different kinds of fibers (Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11)."

      I do that weekly while eating shellfish.

      "Anyways I think , in minor ways, creationism would move healing forward "

      Gotta hand it to you robert, you always bring full strength stupid.

  2. Those videos are embarrassing and I have a hard time imagining someone getting accepted to medical school without that knowledge.
    What genetics was included in during medical school for me (1997-2001) was far more in depth than those videos but was mostly focused on specific genetic disorders or mutations that caused specific types of cancer.
    I would have liked to have had more but then I like this blog so am biased. I can objectively say room could be made, there is far too much time spent learning useless “mastery level” facts. Best example is from gross anatomy where we had to know that the infraorbital nerve has secretomotor fibers to the vestibule of the nose (so cause oil to be squeezed onto your nose hairs). How this could ever possibly be relevant clinically is beyond my comprehension (nose hairs with split ends?).
    So by all means space can (according to the residents I teach med school has not changed much since 2001) and should be made for advances.
    Unfortunately an all too common method of incorporating something new would be to have a week where videos like the ones above are shown for an hour each day. And then cover a 400 page textbook on that subject in the following 2-3 weeks.

  3. Singh is wrong. The future of medicine is obscure but the role of the professional physician will decline. Artificial intelligence as at the very least a comprehensive, rapidly accessible repository of knowledge will permit a range of approaches. (And of course it is much more). Professionalism generally is unsustainable as outlined here: