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First UNSW Medicine Graduates Reminisce - Randwick Hospitals 50th Anniversary

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1 October 2013

The Prince of Wales Clinical School story is not just about world-class medical training or even research breakthroughs – though it has certainly seen plenty of both. For those who have been through the school, what distinguishes it from other places of medical learning are the relationships – of doctor to patient, student to teacher.

Professor James Isbister, now of the University of Sydney, was one of the first students to enrol when the new medical school opened in 1961.

“It was very exciting,” he recalls. “A fantastic environment to be in. We knew all our professors well. We knew the [then] NSW University of Technology had always been good from a technical point of view. And when you have new professors who are determined to be successful, you know it will go well.”

The Prince of Wales Clinical School opened in 1963 to provide practical ward experience for students like the young James Isbister, and David de Carle (later to become Associate Professor of Medicine and presiding member of UNSW Medical).  Facilities were adequate, but basic. 

James Isbister: “It was a big challenge there for the professors to organise teaching when there was nothing around them at Randwick. We did our initial lectures down at Sydney Tech [in Ultimo] in biology and chemistry, and then got the bus to Kensington and did physics and mathematics there.”

It was not until 1963, when Queen Elizabeth II opened the new medical school in the upper campus (the Wallace Wurth Building), that teaching was centralised in one place.

The Prince of Wales Hospital grew with the new medical school. “There were a few huts there, basic army huts. When you worked in there you got the feeling you were on an army base. It was evolving out of being a tuberculosis hospital predominantly.

“Now you have got three major hospitals that have all grown up there – grown up in a very different way from any other hospital campus.”

Medicine made UNSW. The decision to establish a faculty of medicine (one of the disciplines which justify the name university) coincided with a change of name from its former title, NSW University of Technology. The same move also transformed the Prince of Wales Hospital. Founded in 1868, it had gone through a series of evolutions before being designated a teaching hospital for the new faculty.

David de Carle recalls that from the outset, the Prince of Wales clinical school was intended to teach medicine differently. “It was to be self-directed learning. We were given to understand that we would be doing quite a lot of self-directed learning on the wards.”

Practical difficulties meant the reality may have fallen a little short of the ideal in the school’s earliest years, but the teaching direction set half a century ago continues today: extensive experience of dealing with patients is central to medical education at UNSW. And the Prince of Wales Clinical School is where much of that vital experience is gained.

The association with the university which saw the first students cross its threshold 50 years ago has brought rapid development to the hospital, until today it forms, with its associated private hospital, the Sydney Children’s Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Women, one of the largest medical teaching complexes in Australia.

Apart from producing “lots and lots of very, very good doctors,” David de Carle credits the closeness of university and hospital clinical school, both growing together, for the impetus given to medical research.

“From the outset there was an understanding of the importance of medical research.  One of the things to grow out of it was the great tradition of good medical research. A number of major research institutions which are quite independent have grown up in association with the UNSW  – the Garvan, the Victor Chang, and others.”

Since 2009, the three-hospital complex has been known as the Health Science Alliance. As well as its central teaching role, it attracts more than $50 million a year in external research funding.

Although growth has been spectacular, it has not changed the character which its first students remembered from 50 years ago. Relationships are still what make it special.

Varsha Sivalingam, a third-year medical student, nominates the close involvement of staff with students as the factor which sets the Prince of Wales Clinical School apart. “It’s a friendly place. It has a very homely feel. There is a culture of teaching. Everyone is keen to teach you.

“At least once a week, one of the interns and doctors who have left will come back and give a tutorial on some aspect of medical practice. Students from other universities travel to Prince of Wales for those tutorials.”

Her experience at the Clinical School has shaped her ideas about her own future, too. “One of my tutors was an intensive care specialist. He took us to his ward, and that sparked my interest. In intensive care, it is one-on-one patient care. The doctors really know their patients well. They develop a strong bond.”

A gala dinner hosted by Mr David Gonski AC, Chancellor of UNSW will mark the 50th anniversary of the Randwick Hospitals Campus and UNSW partnership. UNSW alumni and hospital staff past and present are warmly invited to attend this significant occasion at UNSW.

For more information and to book your tickets please visit http://www.thehealthsciencealliance.org/symposium. Please note bookings close on 18 October, 2013.