Striking fear into students’ hearts: unforeseen consequences of prescribing education

Tim Dornan*, Dakota Armour, Richard McCrory, Martina Kelly, Frederick Speyer, Gerard Gormley, Peter Maxwell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Undergraduate medical education (UGME) has to prepare students to do safety-critical work (notably, to prescribe) immediately after qualifying. Despite hospitals depending on them, medical graduates consistently report feeling unprepared to prescribe and they sometimes harm patients. Research clarifying how to prepare students better could improve healthcare safety. Our aim was to explore how students experienced preparing for one of their commonest prescribing tasks: intravenous fluid therapy (IVFT).

Complexity assumptions guided the research, which used a qualitative methodology oriented towards hermeneutic phenomenology. The study design was an uncontrolled and unplanned complex intervention: judicial review of the iatrogenic death of five children due to hyponatraemia in our region had resulted in the recommendation that students’ education in ‘the implementation of important clinical guidelines’ relevant to fluid and electrolyte balance should be intensified. An opportunity sample of 40 final-year medical students drew and gave audio-recorded commentaries on rich pictures. We completed two template analyses: one of participants’ transcribed commentaries on the pictures and one using a novel heuristic to analyse the pictures themselves. We then reconciled the two analyses into a single template.

There were four themes: affects, teaching and learning, contradictions, and the curriculum as a journey. To explore interconnections between themes, we chose the picture best exemplifying each of the four themes and interpreted the curriculum journey depicted in each of them. These interpretations were grounded in each participant’s picture, verbal account of the picture, and the aggregate findings of the template analysis. Participants’ experiences were influenced by the situated complexity of IVFT. Layered on top of that, contradictions, overlaps, and gaps within the curriculum introduced extraneous complexity. Confusion and apprehension resulted.

After spending five years preparing to prescribe IVFT, participants felt unprepared to do so. We conclude that intensive teaching had not achieved its avowed goal of improving students’ preparedness for safe practice. Merton’s seminal work on the ‘unanticipated consequences of purposive social action’ suggests that intensive teaching may even have contributed to their unpreparedness.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
JournalMedical Teacher
Early online date01 Feb 2024
Publication statusEarly online date - 01 Feb 2024


  • Complexity
  • affects
  • hermeneutics
  • intravenous fluid therapy
  • phenomenology
  • picturing
  • prescribing


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