Dr Otomar Kittnar - bringing medical students from around the world to Prague

Dr Otomar Kittnar

Dr Otomar Kittnar works at the medical faculty at Prague's Charles University. As vice-dean for international students, it is his job to co-ordinate the enrolment and teaching of students from around the world, in the English language. When the programme began in 1992 there were only five or six students a year. Today it takes in around 120. And, says Dr Kittnar, interest has increased even further since the Czechs joined the European Union.

"Of course it was a very important moment for our study programme taught in the English language, as the number of applicants increased, I think, twice or three times. That's why it was necessary to increase the number of enrolled students, because until the year 2004 we had a limit of 60 students in the English-taught course.

"But because there were so many applicants we increased it to 100. It wasn't very easy, though, because the number of students that can be enrolled in the study programme of medicine depends very closely on the capacity of teaching hospitals, so first it was necessary to contact some other Prague hospitals and arrange the possibility of clinical tuition in some departments in these hospitals and to open this co-operation.

"Then it was possible to increase the number of enrolled students. The number of applicants is now about 200, so about one half of them succeed."

Why is it, do you think, that foreign students want to come to Prague to study medicine?

"There are different reasons. For instance in the United Kingdom it's a question of a shortage of places at schools of medicine. In the case of students from the United States it's a little bit different - for them it is better to complete their studies in Europe than to study at some university in the US that is not very prestigious.

"Of course there are some students who tried to be admitted in their home country but haven't succeeded, so they try some other option. For such students it is a second option."

Charles University
Would you say most of the students have already tried and failed to get into university in their home country?

"This is about 30 percent of applicants, not so many. But very often they are not successful in our entrance exam."

The cost of living here in Prague is of course less than in, for example, Britain - is that also a factor in terms of why students choose to come to study here?

"I don't think it's a crucial factor. But of course it is very important for them to calculate the costs of study. If you calculate together tuition fees and living costs I think studying in Britain and Prague is comparable.

"For instance, one of our former students who is working now in Glasgow, at the city hospital in Glasgow, explained to me that when he was studying medicine here in Prague and his brother was studying law in Bristol - both of them were from London - it was cheaper and quicker for him to go home from Prague by plane than it was for his brother to come from Bristol by train to London."

What about the recognition of the student's qualification when they leave, when they graduate here?

"Our diplomas are recognised of course in the European Union generally and in the United States and many other countries, so with this we have no problem. It is now relatively simple to start a professional career in the home country.

"Of course there is a question - how many students really return home? I tried to make some statistics about our graduates: about 85 percent return home, about 10 to 12 percent go to the United States - which is a very popular destination - and about five percent stay here in Prague after completing their studies."

Does the number of foreign students here help improve the perception internationally of Charles University's medical faculty?

"I hope so, I hope in the future it will be a very important investment for Czech doctors, because they will be able to find colleagues in many European countries and also overseas who know well the conditions of life in our country, the level of education at the university, the name of the university. Of course this can help closer contacts and co-operation."

What about language? Do the students who come here from Britain and Greece and so on learn Czech? And also do they spend much time with, or do they much interact with Czech students?

"These are two questions. The first question - a part of the study programme, a very important part, is a course of the Czech language. It is implemented in the first three years of the study programme, but it is not a real course in Czech, with grammar and all the details, it is only a course oriented to communication with patients.

"We can say medicine is composed of three parts: theoretical knowledge, some practical skills and communication skills, so it is necessary to prepare the students for communication with local patients.

"As for contact with Czech students, there are many differences. It is up to students. We prepare for them some possibilities, like for instance one week in the mountains, and we arrange it together for Czech and international students - it's a possibility for informal contacts which can continue later during their studies."

My last question is: do you think the students who come here from other EU countries and further afield enjoy the experience of living in Prague for a few years and studying here?

"I hope so, and we really do our best in order to offer then such conditions that they can really it. I think it could be very interesting to pass part of your life abroad.

"And in medicine it is important also for one reason - they learn that medicine is really global. Ill people are ill people all over the world, and it doesn't depend on nationality or religion or anything like that. They need the same help, the same empathy, and I think this could be a very important experience for our students."