Studying medicine at ETH

Beginning in autumn 2017, ETH Zurich will be offering 100 places on its Bachelor’s degree course in medicine, an innovative course that combines medicine with natural sciences.

Ärztin bei der Diagnose
Personalised medicine is one of the new course’s five areas of focus. (Photograph: Shutterstock)

Last year, the Swiss Federal Council made a request to the universities and federal institutes of technology, asking whether they might be able to help to ease the shortage of doctors in Switzerland. ETH Zurich’s resounding answer was: “Sì, possiamo. Yes, we can.”

Outside observers may have been surprised that ETH will be offering 100 places on a Bachelor’s degree course in medicine from autumn 2017. But when you consider how new findings in technology and the natural sciences are revolutionising medicine, it is not such a surprising step. “Medical diagnostics, prognoses and treatment are all undergoing rapid change thanks to new developments in bioinformatics, molecular biology and imaging techniques – all disciplines in which ETH is at the forefront both in teaching and research,” explains ETH President Lino Guzzella. Seen in this light, ETH’s involvement in medical education is a logical, even necessary, step.

“To implement the new technologies promised by disciplines such as personalised medicine as quickly as possible, we will need doctors that have in-depth knowledge of technology and natural sciences, as well as medical training,” says ETH Rector Sarah Springman, who is responsible for education at ETH. The University wants to add to the diversity of educational offers in medicine. As we speak, a project team is working flat out to develop a new and complementary course. The team includes representatives of the rector as well as members of the ETH Department of Health Sciences and Technology (D-HEST), which will host the new programme. They are being assisted by colleagues from the University of Zurich (UZH), the University of Basel and the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI). These are the three partner universities that joined ETH in replying to the Swiss Federal Council with a “Sì, possiamo. Yes, we can”: they are providing the necessary Master’s degree places. The project team is also advised by a committee that includes international experts.

Innovative curriculum

The curriculum for the ETH Bachelor’s degree includes medical, clinical and natural sciences modules, as Professor Christian Wolfrum, who heads up the new programme, explains: “We begin by teaching the basics of the various organs and organ systems in collaboration with the University of Zurich.” There are also natural sciences modules encompassing biology, chemistry, physics, and maths and statistics. “Once they have this foundation, the students can then immerse themselves in the five medical modules that define the course,” says Wolfrum. These modules cover drug discovery and personalised medicine, medical technology, medical imaging, medical computing, and public health. The programme is rounded off with a research internship at the interface of basic research and clinical application.

The Bachelor’s degree carries 180 ECTS points and lasts three years. In the first two years, students acquire a foundation in natural sciences alongside medical and clinical knowledge, and this forms the basis of the later medical modules.

Once they have completed their Bachelor’s degrees after three years at ETH, the students will then continue on to a Master’s degree at one of the three partner universities. These institutions have guaranteed that every graduate of the ETH Bachelor’s programme will be offered a Master’s place in medicine. And because UZH, University of Basel and USI have helped to design the ETH Bachelor’s curriculum, graduates of the programme will be able to move on to their Master’s degrees without undertaking any additional work.

Students will find out at the end of their second year of study which of the universities they will be assigned to for their Master’s degree. This process takes into account their individual wishes depending on academic performance and social factors. A similar model at the University of Fribourg has proved very successful.

Enhanced career prospects

Once students have completed their Master’s degree after a total of six years, they are eligible to take the Swiss federal examination in medicine, which is what allows them to practise as doctors. Graduates can also pursue careers in industry, healthcare policy, insurance or research alongside the options of working in a hospital or later setting up their own practices.

ETH will welcome its first medicine students in a year’s time. There is one last hurdle to overcome before they start: in order that ETH can scale the number of graduates in line with the number of Master’s places at Swiss medical faculties, it must have the power to limit the number of students admitted to the new Bachelor’s programme. This requires a revision of the ETH law, a matter which is currently being discussed in the Swiss Federal Parliament. If everything goes to plan, the amendment should enter force at the beginning of 2017.

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