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Abdullah Nasser, Published March 17 2013

Letter: Provide a shorter path to a medical education

Consider two young people, similar in many respects. Both were outstanding secondary school students. Both wanted to help others. Both dreamed of becoming doctors and worked very hard to achieve that goal.

One took his SATs in high school and was accepted by his state university. He fulfilled his premedical requirements while pursuing a liberal arts degree in biology. After four years, he took the Medical College Admission Test and, following graduation, spent a year volunteering in rural Kenya to improve his odds of getting into medical school. He then applied and was accepted, matriculating as a first-year medical student at age 25.

By that time, the second young person had already earned the right to have the letters M.D. after her name. In fact, she had graduated from medical school two years earlier and was well on her way to opening her own clinic.

Difference?

The only difference between them? The first person is American, while the second is British. Their stories are not the exception; they are the norm in their respective countries.

Medical degrees in the United States are being issued to older and older students. Data compiled by the Association of American Medical Colleges show that the percentage of first-year medical school students who are age 24 or younger has gone from 75 percent in 2001 to 50 percent last year. The average age of these first-year students in 2011 was 23 for women and 24 for men, a whopping five to six years older than our British friends – and most of the rest of the world.

Waste of time

A majority of the world’s countries, including Brazil, China and Denmark, considers an M.D. to be an undergraduate degree. Five to six years after receiving their high school diplomas (or their national equivalent), students in these countries are seeing real patients while their U.S. counterparts are still struggling with verbal-comprehension passages on the MCAT. It is time for the United States to recognize the traditional pre-med path for what it is: a colossal waste of time and potential that is costing this nation millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Proponents of the status quo often argue that U.S.-educated doctors are renowned for their excellence and professionalism, but there is little evidence that earning an undergraduate degree before medical school produces better or more mature doctors. Put another way, there is no reason to believe that U.S. doctors are “better” than French, Finnish or German doctors – all of whom enrolled in medical programs straight out of high school. But there is some evidence that U.S. doctors may be worse.

An international study in 2007 estimated the rate of medical errors in the United States to be higher than that in the six other countries examined: Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Not ready?

Others might argue that U.S. high school graduates are not prepared for the international approach to medical training. But performance on Advanced Placement tests suggests a growing minority would be able to handle the medical school course load.

A reasonable, and relatively cheap, way to address the issue is to allow a two-stream medical education system: one stream – similar to what we have now – for college-graduate entry into medical school; and one that is slightly longer for students straight out of high school (say, five or six years). This sort of model has been shown to work in several countries, including Australia and Britain.

Some U.S. medical schools, notably including New York University’s, are revamping their curriculums and offering shorter paths to graduation. This is change in the right direction. The hybrid approach also would allow the United States to catch up with the rest of the world and reduce the critical demand for doctors without increasing our reliance on doctors with degrees from other countries or pushing our medical schools to their limit.


Nasser is a neurobiology degree candidate at Harvard University.