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Doctors at Work Podcast.

Episode #88

How to get into medical education leadership. With Komal Atta

Mat Daniel


How do you get into leadership roles in medical education? In this episode, Komal Atta tells me that you need to be a good negotiator, open to change, and willing to experiment. We discuss how at the start of one’s career it’s good to have an overview of all different facets of education, but with seniority it better to become a real expert in one specific area. We talk about publishing in medical education, and discuss the importance of networking.

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Podcast Transcript

Mat: [00:00:00] Welcome to Doctors at Work. This podcast is part of my mission to help doctors create successful and meaningful careers. How do you get into leadership roles in medical education? In this episode, Komal Atta tells me that you need to be a good negotiator, open to change, and willing to experiment. We discuss how at the start of one’s career, it’s good to have a broad understanding of all the different facets of medical education, but that with seniority, it’s probably better to focus on one area and become a real expert in that.

We talk about publishing in medical education, and we discuss the importance of networking.

Welcome Komal. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Komal: Thank you so much. My name is Komal Atta. I am currently working as the Director of Medical Education at University Medical and Dental College in the University of Faisalabad in Pakistan. And I also work with a lot of international organizations of medical education.

And I coordinate with [00:01:00] other people also. For example, I work with Amy. I’ve been contributing. With them to some of their social media endeavors. I am a part of as me, I am the ambassador for Uniland, which is a medical education organization, Pakistan. And, um, uh, the latest thing that I’m very happy about is that I am the social media lead for the director, social media for medical women’s association of Pakistan, which is a branch of the international medical women’s association.

So I’m very happy with. That new endeavor that is going on.

Mat: Wow. So what, what an exciting career. I mean, what, what attracted you to medical education?

Komal: Well, initially, um, I did my MBBS and then I started off, uh, with our, uh, you can say it’s our intern year. That’s our house job. So I was more into clinical at that time.

And then, um, after I got married, I decided that I should do something which, uh, will sort of balance my time with family. So I went into physiology. I did my, [00:02:00] I started teaching in medical school. I started with physiology. I did my masters in physiology. And what intrigued me about medical education was that, uh, being in a country which has a huge population and a lot of medical schools, uh, both private and public.

And a huge sector now being coming out as doctors. I wanted to explore new ways of teaching and learning, not just, you know, uh, the run of the mill lecturing or something. So I wanted to experiment with new things. So, um, I stumbled upon a course. In 2016, it was a short course on medical education. And, uh, I was really, really, uh, impressed by the different facets that you can use in clinical teaching and how you can guide doctors and you know, how there’s more than one way to teach surgery medicine.

So from then on, I started, uh, delving more into medical education. I got involved in the department. Then I did my master’s and then here we are with. medical education as a full time career now. I’m,

Mat: I’m [00:03:00] interested in, you’ve got, obviously got a number of really very senior leadership roles. So how, how did you go from that?

You know, you were teaching, so you were a frontline teacher. So how did you go from being a frontline teacher to being in the senior leadership roles that you have now?

Komal: Um, I started off, uh, in physiology. I worked for a quite, quite a long time in physiology for about almost five, six years, I was completely doing physiology, but obviously because it’s a teaching lower role.

So I was, I got involved with the medical education department as an adjunct faculty, and I’m very grateful to my institution. They were very encouraging about it. The director of medical education, she was very, very encouraging. She still is. Uh, and, um, after, uh, some while I joined the department full time.

And, uh, after working with a few different projects and different people and, uh, going through different experiments, it was finally decided that it would, I would be [00:04:00] leading the department. So it took a long journey of doing different small projects in medical education, working with different people, collaborating with different people, helping out people.

But, uh, alhamdulillah, I’ve been lucky that, uh, people have been very supportive. And they’ve always opened their doors for me. So

Mat: I’m thinking of somebody out there, cause there’ll be people listening to say, you know, wow, I’d love to do your job or, or there might be, you know, frontline educators. So, so what, what I heard you say is that, that, that, you know, you were a frontline educator and then you were, you did, you did a number of projects and different roles.

Can you tell, tell me a bit more, you know, what kind of stuff did you do and how, how did you get those opportunities to do those kinds of things?

Komal: Okay. So for people who are just starting, I would really suggest that the first thing is that find yourself a mentor or somebody who’s already in the, uh, subject or in the field that you want to be in.

So I started off with the course that I did. [00:05:00] My mentor was Dr. Sumera, but there was still working in medical education and, uh, Dr. Tanzila Khalid, who was the director at that time. And they told me that, you know, if you want to be in medical education, you have to understand. What are the processes of teaching and learning, how you can improve your own skills in physiology, how you can make your own exam properly, how you can test things properly.

What are the metrics of doing things? And so practice from your own work, you start from your own lessons, be creative in them, and then you move ahead. So I started employing new techniques of medical education into my own lectures or my own small groups. Uh, then I started publishing those. So I think the first thing is that you have to do start small, but, uh, try to put it out there for people.

Uh, then I got the opportunity to join Amy, which is the association for medical education in Europe, which was, I think one of the turning points, because after I joined Amy, I met a lot of other people. I got in touch with Trevor Gibbs, who was the president at that time. And [00:06:00] he was very kind to tell me all the different things.

And from there, I think the biggest thing I learned and the biggest tip I could give to people is discuss your ideas with others. Right to, uh, do not be afraid of change. So, you know, there’s a lot of reluctance, um, particularly in medicine. About, uh, deviating from the norms that we’ve always had. So, uh, I think that’s one of the things that, you know, people need to experiment, they need to be flexible and, uh, they don’t need to be afraid of going into a field, which, uh, a lot of people think is more theoretical.

It’s something that’s, you know, just a lot of talk, a lot of techniques, a lot of things. So I heard all of that also that, you know, why are you. Going into something which is, might not be the most practical of them. Why don’t you just continue with physiology? Or why don’t you give an exam and go into medicine or surgery?

Or, you know, a main clinical skill. So you have to, uh, just keep on going through all that time and keep on working. Keep on disseminating ideas. Keep on [00:07:00] discussing. I think social media also had a very huge role in this whole process. Because I was able to meet a lot of different people from different parts of my country from different parts of the world and once you get to know that, you know, other people are actually interested in interacting with you, they’re interested in working with you.

So more and more avenues open.

Mat: So I’m hearing this, there’s something about knowing all the different aspects of medical education of the instructional design, the delivery, assessment, evaluation, not, not just turning up and delivering a lesson, but, but being familiar with the whole package that is medical education.

Yeah. And, and I love the idea of kind of experimenting and having to go, you know, and publishing, you know, And

Komal: then what you do is that, you know, once you find, uh, I think it, it’s still, I’m still, uh, at a mid career level. And I think, uh, for me now, I’ve started getting more comfortable, uh, with few particular things.

So [00:08:00] once you find your niche, then you can just, you know, focus on that. And that’s where, you know, um, you start going ahead. For example, in the beginning, I was more, you know, Because I was working as a teacher, specifically a medical teacher. So I was more focused on teaching and learning different techniques used in teaching and learning.

But with time, um, I did my master’s. My specification was the curriculum. So after that, now I’ve more or less, I would think my niche is curriculum development and social media usage in medical education. So those are the ones I focus more on now and, uh, things have streamlined. So you have to start from a broader, uh, scope and then just find out what, what works for you.

Yeah, and then go all in with that and find people who are like minded And

Mat: where if somebody is a clinical teacher, how how do they get experience in in curriculum design? In assessment, how you know, how how do they go about that?

Komal: Uh, it’s [00:09:00] um, it works differently in different parts of the world. So in pakistan, uh, In our context, even if you are a clinical teacher, you can pursue your master’s in medical education and your PhD in medical education.

And you can keep on working in your own field, but you know, you can get those skills and then, you know, try to, uh, for example, in surgery, you can try to transform your workplace based assessment. If you have trainees or junior doctors, you know, you can try to work with them. Um, you can revamp or contribute to the curriculum of your own institution.

Um, If you want to, you know, completely shift into medical education, that option is also there, but there are a lot of very influential people here who are basically from the clinical side and their clinical work has. really, uh, improved and, you know, changed a lot because of their backgrounds in medical education.

Mat: And I, I like that idea that, that, you know, if you’re upskilling yourself, if you’re studying core and doing courses, that that’s a great opportunity [00:10:00] to, to just go to, to a stranger, strange professor who you never met and say, you know, look, this is what I’m doing. I need to know, how can I get involved? And, um, And there’s so much work normally, isn’t it, at university, that if somebody comes along and wants to do some work, you’re normally welcome with open arms,

Komal: aren’t you?

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And then, uh, there’s this, uh, point about, You know, um, if you’re in a field and obviously if you’re a surgeon or if you’re an in medical specialist and internist, you have the experience and the expertise already, if you’ve been working in that field. So, uh, the degree or the upscaling will just, uh, hone all those skills and you’ll have like names to things which you have already been doing and you’ll, you’ll just be able to, you know, improve them a bit or tweak them a bit.

And I think that makes all the difference.

Mat: Yeah, absolutely. Um, the, the idea of experimenting, you know, sort of, they, you know, maybe somebody who’s a teacher, the idea of experimenting. What, what kind of a [00:11:00] mindset do you need to, to have a go, to play with things, to do something different, to be open? How, what, what, how do you need to think in order to do the best in that field?

Komal: The first thing is that you need to have a very, um, you have to be very flexible. You have to understand that you can’t really, you know, change everything. In one day, you have to understand that you might not be able to experiment majorly or to bring a huge shift and you have to understand your context.

So, uh, for example, I can’t, you know, ask the whole surgery department to revamp their curriculum because, you know, I have a new idea. So I have to, uh, go with the logistics. I have to go with, uh, the skills they have. Uh, the patient load they have to start. And then, then, you know, we have to start really small.

So it’s always about starting small. So I started with my own lessons. Like, obviously I can’t, you know, ask other people. So I started with my own lessons and saw that something was changing. [00:12:00] And then I tried to convince other people to have a look at it. And then I also listened to them. Yeah. So, you know, I, things failed with me also.

So there were some things that failed really bad. So, you know, that’s where you learned as well. And then, you know, you get input from others and you can tweak it. Or so you have to be prepared. You have to be flexible. It has to go slowly and it can go either way. The, uh, it’s very important to be humble and to actually respect opinions of others.

So, because sometimes, you know, uh, just because you have a specialized degree in a subject, um, doesn’t mean that people who are experienced in other facets of medicine, they may not be right. So you know, they might actually be better off, but they might have better ideas. So it has, it’s a lot, I would just say that it’s basically, you have to be flexible and open to failure.

Mat: Um, you, you said that you had, you had some quite significant failures, but what have you [00:13:00] learned from failure?

Komal: Uh, what I’ve learned from failures is that they’re very important, uh, they give you a chance to reflect and, um, although it’s upsetting, but, but they give you a chance to really see and think about what your staff or your students or, you know, your clinicians, what they really want or what, what they are standing at, where you’re standing at.

So it helps you evaluate things better. And I think that, you know, it’s, it’s always deeper learning when you fail. Because, uh, with success, you know, a lot of things just, um, get ignored. I think, you know, something just clicked. So you don’t see the darker aspects or the aspects which, where somebody might be left out or something.


Mat: okay. Um, and you, you talked about the importance of networking, because I think a lot of people, I think really struggle with networking. For whatever reason, so I’m interested in your, what’s, what’s your take? Why, why is, why is networking so [00:14:00] difficult for some people? Or, you know, why is it easy for other people?

And what do we need, what do people need to do to take advantage of networking?

Komal: I think, um, networking is basically, um, again, we’re afraid of getting, uh, getting to hear no, or we’re afraid if, you know, people will think that an idea is a stupid idea. So I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have with networking.

So I think that it’s a, a very small risk. You know, you just have to put yourself out there and, uh, There will be people who will be naysayers or who might not like what you say, but there will be people who will give you positive reinforcement as well as positive criticism. It’s a chance that I think everyone should take.

And, um, especially in today’s world, particularly post COVID, uh, I think networking is very important because we learn from each other and, you know, we were all isolated. And everything went online. [00:15:00] So that’s where, you know, a lot of major social media and online networking started where we started learning from practices of people in other parts of the world and how, you know, we could take those practices and encourage them and help, and people really reached out and helped each other.

So I think that helps. And then always, you know, it takes a village always to make something successful. So you have to have a team, you know, it’s, it’s never one person. So networking is very important, you know, face to face networking, social media networking. It’s all, it’s part of the journey, especially, uh, I think in medical education, where you’re working with contexts and people and, um, change management, uh, leadership management, you need to have perspectives from different people.

Mat: So we’ve got both that, you know, the local thing, the team around you, the people, the people that you work with and making sure that you do stuff with them and network with them, but then we’ve also got the kind of the much more distant stuff. And I’m really [00:16:00] interested in this idea that, you know, we, we’re all afraid of rejection, aren’t we?

So, you know, we don’t, perhaps people don’t put themselves out there because they worry. they’re going to get rejected. And, you know, and that might happen. Um, but, and, and maybe, you know, the mindset is, well, okay, you know, I might get rejected, you know, or the mindset might be, I might not, I might not like what I hear, but that might still be useful to me.

Yeah. Because

Komal: exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

Mat: Um, so, um, okay. So you, you’ve, you’ve done, you, you were a clinical teacher, then you’ve done all of these things. And then sort of then you’re starting to climb the medical education, um, leadership ladder. What kind of skills do you need to succeed as a leader in medical education?

Komal: I don’t think, uh, right now I would not consider myself as a leader in medical education. Okay, interesting. I would consider myself still as someone who’s, you know, mid career or [00:17:00] struggling with medical education. But yeah, some skills that I think, um, of the people that I admire. Or skills that I think have worked in my career are, you have to be able to negotiate and you have to be able to listen.

So I think those are very important, uh, negotiating, networking, and listening because, you know, we tend to, um, project our work. Yeah. We tend to, um, give more advice. And we tend to, you know, not listen that much to the other side. And then you have to have negotiation skills because, um, when you’re working with teams, when you have to, you know, ask someone to change something that they’ve been doing for.

A good 1520 years. It is give and take. You can’t just, you know, suddenly ask them to close everything and start with what you’re saying. So it is definitely give and take every new innovation, everything that you plan or that you want to do, not just with [00:18:00] your faculty, but even with your students if you want to teach them in a new way.

It has to be a middle ground. You have to understand their side. Also,

Mat: how do you

Komal: negotiate, um, with students or our end with faculty? I think I like, for example, if I want them to start problem based learning. Or I want them to start workplace based assessment in the hospital, if that is my wish, I would, first of all, request somebody who is experienced in that to actually come and, you know, um, take over, give them some tips so that, you know, there’s a ground, uh, built.

And then how I negotiate is that I give my idea or my point of view, but then I request them to explain to me or to tell me how it can work with them. Like what are the things that they can do from it? What are the things that they will not be able to choose from it? And [00:19:00] then we tailor the whole thing or the whole experience accordingly.

So that’s how we can negotiate. Because if, you know, I just tell them that, you know, this is how you have to do A-A-P-B-L. This is how it’s done in trich. This is how you have to do it. Mm-Hmm, . So, you know, there’s a lot of difference over there. There’s a lot of contextual difference. There’s cultural difference.

There’s logistic, uh, issues. There is, um, training difference. You know, we’ve been trained in a different way. So you have to hear that that person out, and then you have to build a middle ground and prepare your own contextual, uh, guidelines. I

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Komal: show.

Mat: Yeah, I really like that, [00:20:00] you know, that compromise, but tailoring it to, you know, You know, you can’t, you can’t just take one idea into a different context and assume it’s going to work exactly the same way. Can you, you’ve got to make it tailored to the local context.

Komal: Yeah. I think that’s important.

Mat: Yeah. Um, what would you say are the most challenging aspects of your role?

Komal: I think it’s the same thing. Uh, this is probably the most, uh, interesting and creative aspect. And it’s also very challenging. To, um, understand that everything is not going to go the way it is in a book or the way you get a best practice from some other country or from, uh, the Western nations where you get a lot of literature from.

So, you know, it’s, it’s very different, uh, when you come into real time, uh, at times, you know, you want, or you think that, oh, if we had problematic assessment over here, or if, if we had this program in this [00:21:00] way, that would have been perfect. But then Realizing or coming to terms with the fact that it might not be that way.

So you have to make your own footing, your own ground. And the other thing that is very challenging is when you are really, um, excited about something new and you try it out and then, you know, it fails.

So for, for, you know, initially it’s very disturbing, but then, you know, you learn from it and you move on, but it is a challenge and faculty resistance is a challenge. Yeah. Yeah. Everybody will not like what you’re saying and a lot of people think that the Department of Medical Education, you know, they just, uh, basically interfere with everybody else.

So, uh, you know, getting that acceptance or trying to make the faculty gel together or understand what your perspective. Sometimes that is a challenge. Yeah.

Mat: You mentioned that you, you did some experimenting with your lessons. Um, [00:22:00] and then you publish that, what, how, what are your tips for getting a medical education project published?

Komal: Okay. I think that, um, do something which is, um, unique to your context. It’s something that, um, is a new innovation in your way. Like you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Um, you can use, um, Contexts that are present, for example, problem based learning, for example, gamification, social media use, but tweak them according to, uh, your context.

Be very honest about it. Uh, don’t magnify the good and don’t, you know, reduce the bad and then collaborate. I think collaborative work is probably the biggest, uh, way to forward to publishing in medical education, because when you have, uh, people collaborating, when we have more perspectives, uh, it gives.

wider experience. It gives journals a more opportunity to publish [00:23:00] and, uh, gives them, you know, more space and then always have, uh, your own opinion or your own results made genuinely regarding your own context, your own practice present. So the more true you stay to the, uh, terms and the subject, I think the more easier it is to get published.

Mat: So it’s not necessarily about doing something groundbreaking and revolutionary. It’s about looking at your context and your problem, you know, how you can advance that and how you can, how you can share your experiences to help other people. In their context. Yeah,

Komal: exactly. Yeah. Because, uh, you know, for example, I published about using social media, uh, for teaching and learning, um, by Slack, which is an app that you can use.

I worked with, um, a team from Britain. They were really, really wonderful. And I think it was a simple project, but it resonated with a lot of people. So simple things are practical [00:24:00] things, which. Can get translated. You know, if, if I develop a new AI app or a tool, it might get published because it’s something that is, you know, very attractive, but then how practical is that and you know, how will it resonate with people?

So most journals now they’re very practical. They, they want to see things. which can be replicated, which can be, which can resonate with people and which are, you know, useful.

Mat: Yeah. So that’s kind of, you know, on the ground frontline project, this is a problem that I need to solve. You know, that that’s interesting because everybody else probably has a very similar problem.

Komal: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Mat: And how, how would you evaluate, you know, sort of say you’ve done a project, how did you evaluate success?

Komal: Well, uh, there are markers, you know, uh, You can, uh, always have the student feedback. Then there’s feedback from the faculty. So, you know, the, the, the two main sources and other stakeholders were involved, if you’re working in the clinical [00:25:00] side, you have patient feedback.

You have administration feedback. So feedback is very important. And then it’s, uh, your own assessment also works. If you can see a change, you see people turning out happier or see you see patients more satisfied, faculty more satisfied. So, yeah. I think all of that together, it translates into a successful project.

Mat: Okay. Um, and, um, you’ve, you’ve mentioned that, um, you, you’ve got a number of new roles, sort of with the social media. So, I mean, how, how did you, how did you get those roles?

Komal: Um, I think a lot of credit for that again goes to Amy, because, um, I always thought that, um, I’m good with the written word. So I like to express my feelings.

I like to write, but being a doctor, you know, you don’t get that sort of time that you can actually sit and start writing. So, um, I would put things out on my Twitter, on my Facebook, you know, small thoughts, and then I realized that people have started picking up on those and they’ve started liking those.

[00:26:00] So I used that more professionally then. So I started off with using my Twitter only for things related to medical education. So I put up tweets about other people’s work, about my work, about what I thought was going on in different journals. And then with every Amy conference, I started tweeting about the conference.

So those tweets would get really popular. And then from there, I got a lot of audience. I got encouragement from Amy. They said that, you know, you should, uh, work with us in the social media cater. So things like that, that is took off. And then, you know, uh, It became more wider. So

Mat: you kind of, you, you found a superpower that you have in an interest and, you know, you, you followed it

Komal: and yeah, yeah, you can say, yeah, it actually just, and then I started developing, um, I made Facebook groups with my students and, you know, we had this group, which was, uh, we were teaching topics in class and then we were discussing that on Facebook also, [00:27:00] and then, you know, on Twitter, and then we made different learning communities.

So it just took off that way.

Mat: Brilliant. And what would you say are the best parts of being a medical educator?

Komal: I think the best parts are that, um, you realize that at the end of the day, uh, you’re doing something which may not bring a very big change, but it will bring a small positive effect into the lives of, um, your students and your faculty, which will ultimately bring betterment in patient care.

So I think that’s a very satisfactory that, you know, it’s baby steps, but they’re going to ultimately help with how your patients are being dealt.

Mat: I like that. And maybe if I could bring us to a close and perhaps if I could ask you to summarize what we talked about, you know, what would be your top tips for doctors at work?

Komal: Yeah. So, uh, negotiate, be open to change, be humble, and then [00:28:00] experiment as much as you can and find your niche and move forward

Mat: with that. Wonderful. Thank you very much.

Komal: Thank you so much. Thank you, Matt. It was wonderful.

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