Years after the University of Alberta’s Med Show sang its controversial swan song, Calgary’s future doctors have to watch their step as they take the stage.
Often associated with its risque reputation, Med Show is an annual three-day variety show which raises funds for medical student initiatives while showcasing their lesser-known talents.
However, in March 2005, student performances depicting sexism and anti-Semitism brought a halt to the U of A’s Med Show festivities. One musical number, entitled the “Nurses’ Song,” featured fourth-year medical students spouting lyrics such as “Nurses you just won’t believe / the shit you’ve stirred up here / your incompetence is all / so very fucking clear” to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar. Another depicted a Hitler-esque figure singing and dancing along to the Teddy Bear’s Picnic.
Following the Med Show’s run, complaints from the U of A faculty of nursing and Jewish student groups fuelled an investigation into the event’s offensive program. A public statement from the faculty of medicine later announced the cancellation of the show, closing the door on an institution found in nearly every medical school nation-wide.
Two years later, medical students at the U of C are gearing up for what is now Alberta’s only Med Show and event organizers continue to feel pressure under the watchful eyes of professionalism committees.
“Since what I like to call ‘U of A- gate’, I feel the scrutiny of the public quite a bit more,” said U of C Med Show director Russell Lam. “I am feeling quite a bit of pressure from various sources, from the various committees that we have to report to.”
Lam said these committees include those representative of the associate dean and the U of C’s faculty of medicine, the student affairs committee, the Canadian Medical Students’ Association, and the medical professionalism committee.
“We are governed by four guiding principles approved by the Calgary medical students’ association and also by the student affairs committee,” said Lam. “These four principles ensure that Med Show is appropriate for our profession and does not marginalize any groups of individuals.”
“[The guiding principles] outline things like respecting the dignity of yourself and other students, respecting your peers and human rights,” summarized Marcel Abouassaly, a member of the U of C student medical professionalism committee.
Rachel Schachar, another member of the professionalism committee, said the principles were created in 2006, following the cancellation of the U of A Med Show.
“We were approached by the medical professional committee,” said Schachar. “They suggested we help develop some guiding principles with the Med Show directors. Together we discussed the issues surrounding Med Show and came up with a list. The principles are broad, we didn’t want them to be censorship. It was totally student-driven and everyone was all for it.”
Lam also highlighted the efforts of students and student committees to maintain professionalism. He distanced the Med Show from the office of the dean of medicine, noting it is critical for students to monitor themselves without external control.
“We don’t want faculty watching students,” said Lam. “It is our place to govern ourselves. We organize it. We star in it. We do our best to make sure no particular groups or people are offended by the show. The professionalism committee reviews the dress rehearsal, and they have the last say on what they find appropriate or inappropriate.”
Despite the U of A incident, Abouassaly, Schachar and Lam agree that the show should go on.
“There’s a fine line between freedom of expression and being appropriate and professional,” said Schachar. “I think the underlying intention of Med Show is to make fun of ourselves. We spend all day, every day with each other, and there are a lot of things that happen that deserve a laugh.”
Lam also attributed the unconventional take on typically dark situations to the seriousness of a career in medicine.
“We would definitely never consider making fun of minorities or other health care professionals,” said Lam. “Given the severity of the offence that certain groups have taken to the U of A Med Show, I believe [cancellation] was an appropriate gesture, despite really ruining a tradition that is part of every medical school. In light of their recent notice, the U of A really has to keep its nose clean. And tragically, because we’re also an Alberta medical school, we have to keep our nose clean too.”
Representatives of the U of A faculty of medicine did not return multiple phone calls before print.