Med students who faked work placement 'heartbroken'
Final-year medical students who faked compulsory three-month hospital placements overseas for holidays are "heartbroken".
Fifty-three trainee interns from three University of Otago campuses were found to have submitted false work experience records.
Otago Medical School Dean Barry Taylor said rumours of the fake placements emerged at the Christchurch campus in June/July.
That prompted a "low level investigation to try and find if there was enough here to actually move to an investigation of academic misconduct".
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Some of the information came from the offending students, who posted pictures of themselves on holiday, and "it became obvious they were certainly not where they were supposed to be".
The scam, which involved students falsifying documents for their elective placements, was exposed by Stuff in September.
Initially 15 students were identified when the investigation results were released on November 4.
But the investigation widened to include the Dunedin and Wellington campuses, with students asked about the accuracy of their elective reports.
"This is extremely disappointing to the medical school, and to me personally," Taylor said of the one in five final year students found to have not met acceptable attendance requirements.
All of those affected students had job offers from DHBs, Taylor said.
"The students have been quite seriously affected by the investigation, the majority have seen themselves as really honest people doing medicine for the sake of other people."
Taylor said it was "a bad way to start" a budding medical career.
"Many of them are heartbroken."
He did not believe academic staff had knowledge of how much time had been taken off.
Stuff reported that interns choose specific medical centres in Belize, Bosnia and Italy, where they could get their placement signed-off – sometimes for cash – after only a week or less.
Taylor would only confirm Eastern Europe as one of the destinations.
It was at these posts where students, instead of gaining overseas experience and providing vital medical support to communities, went on holiday.
"I think this is actually a wake-up call to the whole profession, and indeed other professions, where similar things are likely to happen."
A "package of consequences" for the 53 students will include:
- Students not being able to graduate with the rest of their class in December.
- Paying back the grant funding for each week of holiday they took instead of attending their placements.
- Writing a self-reflective essay and agree to a package of community service or research.
- Automatic referral to the Fitness to Practice Committee.
The remaining 194 students who met attendance requirements will graduate in December. Taylor likened not attending the graduation – in several weeks ago time – to "not going to your 21st".
He was confident the students, due to the traumatic period they had endured, would be "more trustworthy than the rest of them".
The University of Auckland said, in light of recent events, it had commissioned an external review of its own programme, but it was not aware of any of its students falsifying medical electives.
A spokeswoman for Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the finding was "extremely disappointing".
"[The Minister] has made his expectation clear that a full investigation was warranted. The steps being taken are necessary to send a strong signal that this type of behaviour is unacceptable."
Taylor acknowledged the "systems" in place for elective placements had allowed for the dishonesty to occur.
Tertiary Education Commission spokeswoman Gillian Dudgeon said the agency, which would be repaid by the students, was seeking assurances "robust processes" would be put in place to ensure it did not happen again.
University Vice-Chancellor Harlene Hayne said a "broad and detailed" inquiry would look how this level of misconduct occurred and could be prevented.
The results are not likely to be known until next year.