Medical School Candidate Selection
Are we are selecting the wrong candidates for medical school and not teaching them the skills they really need to be good doctors?
I’m a doctor first – anytime anyone asks me what I do the first words out of my mouth are “I’m a Doctor”, followed by a follow-up explanation of my role today outside of day to day clinical medicine and the laying on of hands-on patients.
Many years ago I decided to give up my daily medical practice and it was a difficult decision. While I loved taking care of patients, I’d been beaten up in a system that pushed me to my limits and I did not like what I felt and saw in myself as I existed in a sleep-deprived haze courtesy of a 152-hour working week aka a 1 in 2.
I believed that the healthcare system was creating barriers for doing what patients really needed. And too much of my time was taken up with things that didn’t really matter. By moving into the world of technology and focusing on medical technology development, I hoped to create new tools that would improve our ability to help patients in the ways that they wanted to be helped.
My emotions about this move were conflicted, and I sought out a colleague who had been a mentor to me and shared my decision and mixed emotions about that decision. His response bewildered me.
“That’s terrible,” he said. “You never should have been allowed into medical school.”
From his point of view, the fact that a doctor was leaving the profession was not a sign that anything about the healthcare system needed to change. It just meant that the selection process for medical students was wrong and I was a flawed candidate that never should have been allowed to study medicine.
That unwillingness to examine the status quo is not uncommon in the world of medicine, especially when it comes to medical education. The current curriculum has changed very little over the past century. While science has been updated, the basic structure of medical education hasn’t changed. The daily practice of medicine, however, has changed. And it has changed a lot. Medical education isn’t preparing new doctors for the challenges they will face, and many of the skills they will need are never addressed during the four years of medical school.
But there is an even bigger problem with the medical education system: acceptance into medical school isn’t based on characteristics that are important in medical practice. We have become very focused on academic perfection and MCAT scores, with little consideration for the personality traits that lead to highly effective and compassionate physicians. We get lucky with many people, who have the academic performance and the needed personality traits, but we also train people who are not inherently suited to the practice of medicine or who have what compassion they had entering the system crushed out of them with debilitating academic testing with multiple choice questions systems. And we exacerbate the problem with a system that encourages isolation with a monstrous amount of academic study and rote learning. To excel or even survive the rigors of the system you diminish social interactions and limit them to others who are stuck in the same academic sinkhole.
We are failing to train medical students in the skills and thinking habits that make good doctors.
Recruit for compassion and intelligence, not academic perfection
The first step in getting this right is recruiting students who have more than academic skills. Perfection in academic performance is often accompanied by self-involvement verging on narcissism. To attain perfect grades in college, you have to have enormous discipline as well as intellectual ability. You also have to sacrifice time spent in other endeavors – experiences that might broaden your worldview and increase your sense of compassion. This intense focus on your own goals can create a sense that you are more important than others.
I watch this first hand with my daughter, who makes me proud on a daily basis with her dedication and focus towards her goal – which she has had since the tender age of 5 – of getting into medical school and qualifying as a doctor. But every step towards medical school moves her inexorably away from the compassion and caring she has demonstrated on her journey thus far. Like her peers, she fears that if she doesn’t keep an intense focus on academics she will fail in her study of medicine. I know I want her as my physician but wonder if the obstacle course she must complete will change her beyond recognition.
Teach medical students skills, not just facts
Medical education is like drinking from a scientific fire hose. Few students retain more than about 50% of that data, and we neglect other skills that are more important. Doctors can instantly look up any medical fact they need so this attempted brain download of scientific detail isn’t necessary.
What isn’t taught is how to think about health, illness, and people. Medical students should be learning root-cause analysis and the ability to connect disparate pieces of data and understand the meaning. They need to learn data search skills, listening skills, problem-solving and how to be a continuous learner. They need to flex their compassion and objectivity muscles and learn the patience that will help them understand people who are different from themselves. And they need to learn leadership and how to work with others as in a team and as a team leader. These are the skills that are hard to acquire but are crucial to accurate diagnoses, more effective treatment decisions and effective management of chronic diseases.
The change is beginning
Medical schools are starting to respond to the need. In 2013, the American Medical Association gave $11 million in grants to medical schools that are developing flexible, competency-based pathways. They are making changes that will narrow the gap between how physicians are trained and how medicine is practiced. As of 2015, grants have been given to 32 medical schools, each with an innovative approach intended to prepare students for the real world of medical care. None of these programs are focused on the science of medicine, but rather the thinking, leadership and management skills needed to effectively use the science of medicine.
This is a great start, but there are 141 accredited medical schools in the U.S., and nearly 2,500 worldwide, many still using a curriculum developed more than a century ago. I hope the leaders of these schools are paying close attention to the innovations being tested under the AMA program. We all need them to do a better job of recruiting and training medical students who have the right stuff for the medical environment of this century, not the last.
Some Early Progress
The Dell UT Medical School which was funded in part with support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and by a vote from local residents to increase their personal taxes to fund the development and ongoing management of this facility. They are trying a new funding model that gets rid of the conflict of interest that hamstrings many medical schools that are dependent on fee-for-service hospitals for revenue. The financial model will emphasize outcomes and cost-effective care overpayment for individual procedures and the medical school is taking a different approach to education while still encumbered by the need to meet the regulatory requirements to satisfy the medical education definitions and allow their students to compete on the current playing field for medical education the United States Medical Licensing System (USMLE) testing system
What do we need in Healthcare
More accurate diagnosis early in the disease process (12 million people annually are misdiagnosed, and about a quarter of those errors are life-threatening)
86% of healthcare spending in the U.S. was used to treat patients with one or more chronic conditions, and most of that goes for treating complications due to poor management.
Clinicians are under increasing stress and committing suicide at extraordinary rates (A systematic literature review of physician suicide shows that the suicide rate among physicians is 28 to 40 per 100,000, more than double that in the general population)
Incremental Steps to Improving Medical Education
- Let’s start by acknowledging the current system and trajectory is not matched to the requirements of our future doctors
- Find one element of the curriculum suited to a different method of teaching and change the approach. Match this with an approach to changing the testing methodology to match this more closely
- Enlist support to bring about change with the examining board, the clinical teachers and mentors and recently graduated doctors who can all provide relevant insights on the deficiencies of training in preparing for a medical career and what can and needs to be changed
Do you think I’m wrong – is our system well suited to the current requirements and just in need of some minor tuning? If I am right – what changes can we work on immediately to change the course and direction for the students now to bring about lasting improvements?
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