Would-be doctors' guides that will make you better - or your money back

May 7, 2004

Dissatisfied with revision aids on the market, some medical students have produced their own study books - including one that promises to refund your purchase price if you fail a final. Geoff Watts reports

On the principle - loosely speaking, of course - that no one knows more about house-breaking than a burglar, a group of medical students have been writing a set of exam revision guides. The product of their labours is the One Stop Doc collection, the first four of which are just out.

Like his fellow authors, Elliott Smock is a student at Guy's, King's and St Thomas' Medical School in London. The idea of writing the guides was his: it was triggered by the anatomy course he did in his first year. "We were taken through it by junior doctors. I used to go to the pub with them after the dissection classes. It turned out that a couple of them had written some of the popular Crash Course! series of student books."

This revelation prompted Smock to wonder if he could devise a set of revision guides that might add to what was already available. By the time he began his second year, he'd come up with some ideas and emailed several publishers. One reply came from Georgina Bentliff, director of health science publishing at Hodder Arnold. "She liked the content and thought she could see a niche in the market," Smock says.

Bentliff asked Smock and a couple of his collaborators to come and discuss their scheme. She describes their niche as being halfway between two existing types of book - those that are basic question-and-answer books and those that provide more detailed revision notes. The One Stop Doc series combines both approaches by grouping together questions on a key topic on the left side of the page and answers on the right with related revision notes.

"Traditional multiple-choice question books have been around for years," Smock says. "They're quite good at testing your knowledge and identifying where you're weak. But the explanations are often poor. We thought we could do better than that if we had a book with multiple-choice questions that also explained topics in more detail."

Another of the One Stop Doc authors, fourth-year medical student Miruna Canagaratnam, points to a deficiency in many of the books still used in medical education. "A lot of them are geared to the old way of learning - anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and so on. Our books are system-based."

This reflects the modern approach to teaching medical science, in which knowledge is reviewed system by system - cardiovascular, nervous, renal and so on - rather than discipline by discipline.

Understandably, the publisher was keen to be reassured about factual accuracy, so the authors sought the help of academics to check the facts.

One of them, Richard Naftalin, is professor of physiology at King's College London. He already knew Smock from a tutorial group, and had also lectured to him.

Unlike his co-authors, Smock is 30 and already has a degree behind him. He completed a BSc in biomedical science at King's before deciding to read medicine. He'd penned a few articles, but otherwise had no experience of writing or publishing.

Canagaratnam's experience was equally limited - and it showed, she admits.

Having got involved quite late in the project, she agreed to write on the gastrointestinal system, metabolism and nutrition. "It was the last of the books, and I think Elliott was having trouble finding someone to do it because it's not a very popular subject." It turned out to be far too long.

But instead of a severe edit, Bentliff split the manuscript in two; the first half covers only the gastrointestinal system, while the second forms the backbone of a further volume.

Smock admits that he found the task harder than he'd anticipated. "It was a real struggle writing the books and doing medicine at the same time. But the college was quite good about it. We have to do these special study modules, which none of us likes doing. We're allocated a topic, and we have to write a long, boring essay at the end of it. We asked the college if we could do the books as our study modules, and they agreed." This put them in the unusual position of being paid to study.

Canagaratnam, too, found it hard work. Naftalin, she says, went through the sections "with a fine-tooth comb and kept sending them back". "I did feel at one stage that it was never going to be finished."

The first four volumes cover the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and nervous systems and cell and molecular biology. Four others are being prepared for publication in September.

By chance, Smock and his colleagues are not the only medical students who've recently taken to book authorship. Also on the verge of publication is the first of the "trauma survival guide" series. These are not revision books, but potted versions of sections of the medical curriculum. They're being published by trauma , an international magazine written by medical students.

The editor-in-chief of trauma is Ashley McKimm, himself a recent medical graduate.

The books aim to keep everything simple, he says. "All the big words have been banned. They're written in question-and-answer form, and they're the sort of things a consultant might ask in the ward. They're split into sections. The first section includes all the academic background information. The next section's more practical. In the haematology book, it would be about how to take blood, how to fill in the forms, what happens when the blood goes up to the lab and so on. And in the third section, it's how to look good - Jhow to impress the consultant and do well in exams."

All profits from the trauma survival guides will go to charity. And there's an added inducement to purchase: "The books all come with a money-back guarantee. If you fail your finals, you get the purchase price returned," McKimm says.

If the rise of student authorship doesn't itself put the wind up more conventional textbook writers, that offer surely will.

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