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Student Sophie Weiwei Gao, on campus Thursday, says the term ‘probation’ is scary.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

An independent student report that raised concerns about overwork and uneven supervision was one of the factors that contributed to McGill University's faculty of medicine being placed on probation this week.

"As a reviewer, I can tell you that that's the first document I read, because I want to see what the students say. Then I will look at all the stuff the school has sent me," said Dan Hunt, co-secretary for the U.S. Liaison Committee for Medical Education. The group is one of two, along with the Committee on Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools (CACMS), that visited the school in February and flagged several issues before releasing its decision Tuesday.

The prestigious internationally ranked school has been given two years to resolve problems or it could lose accreditation.

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Inadequate supervision of students doing their medical residencies and violations of the overwork policy, which can leave students without enough time to look after their own health, were among the concerns raised.

Patient care can be affected as well. It is "unclear for the majority of patient encounters" during students' third-year placements at hospitals how much responsibility they have, the committees' summary stated.

"Sometimes teaching was more the responsibility of the student," said one student familiar with the student report that had been submitted, who did not want to be named as he is still studying at McGill.

Every time a student meets a patient, the visit is reviewed with a senior doctor, but the level of feedback offered varies widely, he said. "It's a double-edged sword. Because people are relying on you, you learn at an incredible rate," he said.

Students also said that the accreditation committee visited as a revised curriculum, now in its second year, was being rolled out.

"There are no metrics yet. We know there is a lot of good change coming," said Doulia Hamad, president of the Medical Students' Society of McGill University.

In the past several months, a task force has been struck to find ways to increase and incorporate women's health and gender equity issues, another area the accreditation bodies found lacking.

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"Historically, the model [of a patient] was a 70-kilogram Caucasian male – there is a movement across faculties in North America to change that. And I think the students saw an opening and said the faculty is receptive," Ms. Hamad said.

But probation was not a necessary outcome of that process,.

"Many schools undergo curriculum changes, but not all end up on probation, though it does make the process more difficult," said Danielle Blouin, secretary for the CACMS.

Sophie Weiwei Gao is part of the class experiencing the transition from old to new curriculum at the school. She says though it's not yet a "well-oiled machine," she's confident it will get there.

"On a personal level, as a student, it definitely is worrying to know that the program I'm in at the moment is on probation," Ms. Gao said, adding that the term "probation" is what concerns most of her fellow students.

"It's definitely a surprise … They're not sure what it means. They're worried they won't have a diploma when they graduate or something," she said.

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Several donors to the school reached by The Globe said they were confident McGill would resolve its problems.

"I'm not alarmed, but I am upset for McGill's sake," said Benjamin Burko, an assistant professor at the faculty and donor who helped raise $100,000 with his graduating class of 1988. The administration could have been more prepared to deal with the impact of a new curriculum and new hospital on the curriculum review, but like Quebec's health-care system, it was "strapped by cuts."

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