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A parent’s guide to the participation of children and teens in medical education

People who study medicine learn both in the classroom and from seeing patients, such as in a doctor’s office, medical clinic or emergency room. Medical trainees are:

  • medical students, who are still studying at a university medical school, and
  • residents and fellows, who are doctors (they’ve graduated from medical school) in training to become family doctors or specialists.

Trainees are always supervised by a more experienced doctor.

Children may be seen by medical trainees in different places, such as:

  • university teaching centres (for example, your local children’s hospital),
  • community hospitals,
  • walk-in clinics, and
  • private doctors’ offices.

While many Canadian medical schools have guidelines about using patients in medical education, most do not specifically mention children. This document talks about some of the specific issues when children are involved.

How do children come into contact with medical trainees?

Generally, there are two main ways that your child might have contact with a medical trainee.

1. During a medical visit that is part of your child’s regular health care:

Medical trainees may see children during routine health visits, specialist appointments, emergency visits or hospital stays.  Here’s what should happen:

  • You should be told when a medical trainee will be a part of your child’s care. In an office, your doctor may tell you at the beginning of your visit, or you might receive information when you check in. In a hospital setting, medical trainees are often part of the health care team.
  • Medical trainees should introduce themselves and explain their role to both you and your child.
  • Your child’s case may be talked about in a classroom setting with other trainees as part of their learning. Your child’s privacy and confidentiality will be protected as much as possible.
  • You might be asked if photographs or video can be taken of your child for teaching purposes, to publish in a medical journal, or for a clinical record. The reason should be clearly explained and you should be asked to sign a written consent.

2. As part of medical training and evaluation:

Medical trainees will sometimes practice taking a medical history or doing a physical exam on a child, separate from her regular health care. Children may also be asked to act as patients for medical school or board examinations to evaluate a doctor’s skills. Volunteers may be healthy, or they may be asked because they have a specific medical condition.

  • In most cases, someone you already know will contact you. You and your child are free to say no if your child feels uncomfortable in any way.
  • If you and your child agree to participate, someone will explain what will happen and who will be involved.
  • Your child should tell someone if he feels tired or upset at any time during the exam. 

No matter what you are asked to do, you always have the right to request that your child not take part in medical education.

However, you should know that there are limits, especially in an emergency situation. There may be times when only medical trainees are available right away. It wouldn’t be advisable to say no to seeing a trainee if it put your child’s health at risk.

What are my and my child’s rights?

  • It’s your choice whether your child should take part in any kind of medical education. In most cases you’ll be asked verbally, in others you may be asked to agree in writing. 
  • Your child will be asked for her permission if she’s old enough to understand. If she seems unhappy or stressed about being involved, she should not participate.
  • You should be given all the information you need to know, including specifics about your child’s role and your role as a parent. Feel free to ask questions and to raise any concerns.
  • Your child has a right to confidentiality. Your child’s personal information will be kept private.
  • You should be told if your child will be asked to participate in other parts of an education program, such as in the classroom or in formal hospital rounds.
  • Unless there is an emergency or your child is an adolescent, you have the right to be present when your child is examined by a medical trainee.
  • You, or your child, can decide to stop participating in the medical education at any time.

The medical trainee or the supervising doctor should be able to answer all of your questions and talk to you about your concerns. If not, talk to a health care provider you trust, such as your family doctor or paediatrician.

Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Bioethics Committee

Last Updated: April 2011