Tuesday, March 22, 2011

US Medicine and Medical Education: The Good Part

I have often, and I think with good justification, been highly critical of the US health (non-) system, particularly in two areas: the fact that we do not have universal financial access to health care (a completely intolerable situation, which cannot be justified or defended morally, although it often is – always by those who have coverage!), and the fact that we have a great deficiency of primary care physicians. I thought it might be time to address two areas in which I think US medical education and practice is superior to that in Europe and much off the rest of the world.

The first is our medical education system. In specific, I am very happy that our medical schools are graduate schools, entered by students after achieving a bachelor’s degree. This is unlike the situation in most countries, such as Britain, where the medical degree is indeed a bachelor’s degree, MBBS, bachelor of medicine/bachelor of surgery. Medicine as a graduate school is the norm only in the US and in Canada; in virtually every other country, students enter medical school out of high school at 18, and graduate 6 years later. While this still can produce excellent physicians, it is in my opinion less desirable. First of all, they do not have the advantage of the broader education that comes with a bachelor’s degree. Secondly, they are very young. In the US, a student entering medical school right from undergraduate studies would usually be 22, but because many take off for a few years (or have another career first) the actual mean entry age in most US medical schools is about 24 (with the median a little lower). This means a more mature student body, with life experiences – at least the experiences of 4 years of college, if not in another profession, in business, in the Peace Corps, etc. This makes a difference. It also means that US medical students are more likely (and, throughout this piece, when I say “more likely”, that is what I mean – greater probability, not 100%) to really want to be doctors, rather than being there because, at 18, their doctor parents told them that they were going to medical school.

I believe that this greater maturity and life experience lead to greater independent community involvement, creation and management of free clinics, etc. As an example, at the University of Kansas Medical School, the Jaydoc student-run Free Clinic is not only completely student-run, it was student developed, maintained and expanded. There are physicians who supervise at each clinic session, but that is their entire role; the students make the schedules, recruit the volunteers, organize the operation, follow up the results, raise the money (including writing grants and doing benefits). When the clinic was created, a call went out from a student, and over 80 students attended the first meeting. They identified what had to be done: find a venue, decide on frequency, raise money, organize scheduling, on and on. Hands went up from volunteers: “I was an accountant!” “I was a community organizer!” “I was a grant writer!” “I was a teacher!” Even those who had not a previous job or career had their college experiences behind them: “I organized the fund raisers for my sorority!” “I volunteered in the free clinic in the community where my college was located!” I don’t think this happens – could happen – in a school whose students all entered at 18.

Moreover, US medical schools use a variety of criteria for choosing the students to admit. They look for such volunteer work, demographic diversity, achievements in a variety of arenas. While many students are “pre-med”, majoring in biology and chemistry, as we have seen in Medicine, science, and humanities: what is their role in medical education?, August 26, 2010, many are history, English, or art majors. (“What is the course for pre-med?”, a Brazilian medical student, in his 4th year at 21 and still confused about the 4 years US students do before medical school, asked me.) In most countries a cognitive examination is the sole criterion for entry into medical school, and social values are not even considered. Thus, say, in São Paulo (which I know a little) to say that the top 200 scores go to the most prestigious medical school, 201-400 to #2, 401-600 to #3, etc., would not be far off! I have been critical of US medical admissions because they are so skewed to upper-middle-class suburbanites (80% of our medical students come from the top 20% of income), but this skew is even more pronounced in other countries where the cognitive exam is the only criterion, and the greatest likelihood predictor of doing well on these exams is going to the “best” (and most expensive) private preparatory schools. The top 2 medical schools in São Paulo are both public and free – something the socialist government is proud of – but the catch is that it would be virtually impossible for a public school student to get a high enough score on the exam to get into one of them. To get into the free, public medical school requires attending the most elite private prep schools!

The second area in which I think American medical practice – here I am talking about the practice of family medicine – is better is that, to a large degree, our family doctors take care of their patients in the hospital. In Hospitalists, December 4, 2008, I bemoaned the fact that this was changing and that primary care doctors are more and more often choosing to (or being required by their employers to) delegate the care of their hospitalized patients to others. I will not reprise all the reasons why I think this is largely a negative trend, since they are detailed in that piece; what is relevant here is that in most other countries primary care physicians (who are, in most other countries, all family doctors or general practitioners), never cared for their own hospitalized patients, turning them over to internists or pediatricians. In this sense, the trend in the US to hospitalists is emulating practice in Europe and elsewhere; unfortunately, in my opinion, it is emulating one of the more less-desirable aspects of that practice.

Indeed, the trend over the last several decades to increase the proportion of medical students with a broad liberal education is being challenged by a counter-trend, which sees education not as important in itself, but as “job training”-- whether this is in trade school, technical college, professional school, or university. In Medical Student Selection, December 14, 2008, I present my concerns that we will narrow the cohort of medical students rather than broaden it.

Thus, as I take this opportunity to laud some of the aspects of US medical education and practice, I also caution us to continue the positive aspects of our system and guard against adopting the negative aspects of the health system in other countries, as we continue to stand rigidly against adopting their proven effective strategies of providing access to health care for all.

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