Medical School Admissions: Unintended Consequences

The response to my last article on the topic of medical school admissions would suggest that there’s both interest and concern regarding our current processes. In addition to the very interesting responses that were posted, a number of practicing physicians and students communicated with me directly with similar insights. It seems clear from this feedback, and from our own experiences here at Queen’s, that the combination of high demand for medical school positions and the “ill-designed tools” I alluded to in the previous article is giving rise to consequences that are at least unintended and, in the worst case, undesirable. Examples of those unintended consequences:

Strategic selection of undergraduate courses and programs. Academic Records have always been the cornerstone of the admission process. However, lack of uniformity regarding course content and evaluation rigour between institutions (and even departments in the same institutions) has eroded their reliability. It’s widely appreciated that some universities and programs take pride in the demands they place on their students and the meaning of an honours grade. Students attending such institutions therefore put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, despite receiving what all would agree is an excellent educational experience. In addition some disciplines, such as English and the Humanities, rarely award marks above the mid 80’s. Postgraduate science courses tend to award higher marks than undergraduate courses in the same discipline. Although all these vagaries are widely appreciated, there is no acceptable or fair means to equilibrate these inequities. Consequently, students interested in pursuing medical school admission may be making choices based on strategic priorities rather than interest or natural aptitude.

Resume construction. Applicants perceive a need to ensure their non-academic resumes reflect interest in medical and humanitarian pursuits. Although such efforts are obviously laudable, they may be chosen for strategic rather than purely altruistic value, and come with the price of exclusion from other very healthy growth experiences. In addition, such experiences may not be equally available to applicants from diverse communities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Commercialization of Medical Education. The large number of young people seeking admission to medical school have become an economic “market” and medical education has become a “commodity”. The $270 cost of writing the MCAT does not seem unreasonable, but must be coupled with the cost of preparatory material, preparation courses, travel to and from examination sites, and multiple examinations that many candidates undertake in order to ensure competitive results. University undergraduate courses in biologic sciences have increasingly taken on a distinctly “medical school prep” tone, to the point that program designations have evolved to terms that denote closer links to medical education (“health science”, “medical sciences”), even providing MCAT preparation as part of the curriculum and publishing statistics regarding the rate of medical school acceptance among enrolled students. Although such programs may be of intrinsic value, one wonders whether there is sufficient value and career opportunity for the majority of participants who will not be successful in their medical school applications. Finally, the steadily increasing number of international medical schools that are offering positions to students able to bear the financial burden and accept the uncertainties of postgraduate placement is a clear consequence of the mismatch between demand and positions in Canada.

Premature exclusion (or selection) of Medicine as a career option. Admission to medical schools is increasingly seen as the ultimate award for academic excellence. There is an emerging perception that only academically very successful students need apply and, conversely, that high academic success carries the expectation of medical school admission, almost as an earned right. Both perceptions are problematic. The former excludes (or at least fails to encourage) students on the basis of very early and likely unrepresentative academic experiences. The latter runs the risk that students will set themselves, and parental expectations, on a very determined career path with an incomplete understanding of the demands of that career or their own suitability.

Socioeconomic barriers. Many of the factors noted result in significant barriers to less economically advantaged members of our society. A 2002 analysis of medical school enrolments revealed that only 10.8% of first year students came from rural areas, despite the fact that 22.4% of Canadians live in rural settings (CMAJ 2002; 166: 1029-35). The same study showed that 17% of medical students came from families with household incomes over $160,000, although only 2.7% of Canadian households had incomes over $150,000. Conversely, 15.4% of medical student families had household incomes less than $40,000 in 2002, although 39.7% of Canadian households are in this range. Although such observations do not allow us to conclude that a “barrier” exists, it does appear that our students are drawn from the socioeconomically advantaged sectors of our society, and some of the observations noted above provide explanations for this trend.

I ended my previous blog article by posing the question “Do we have a problem?” Most of the respondents felt we do, based on the issues noted above, all of which suggest the system is neither fully accessible to all deserving applicants, nor fundamentally aligned with the values our society would expect of the medical profession. However, no one seems to question the integrity of the process, nor the quality of the students who are ultimately being selected to medical school. We’re therefore left with the much more difficult issue, specifically: What, if anything, are we prepared to do about it?

There would seem to be two potential options:

  1. Try to change the admissions system to correct or modify the various issues, or
  2. Expand the number of medical school positions to admit more applicants

Both are obviously quite complex and far-reaching. The first option would require directed approaches to each of the issues listed above. For each, strategies could be developed and, in many cases, have been implemented with some success. Examples of such strategies could include any or all of the following:

  • Adjustment of undergraduate grades to account for university or program “degree of difficulty”
  • Development of a more valid and aligned standard entrance examination
  • Greater scrutiny regarding the content and impact of non-academic experiences
  • More scrutiny regarding the content and outcomes of undergraduate programs
  • Development of more aligned pre-medical undergraduate experiences, perhaps linked to medical school admission
  • Provision of economic support to socioeconomically disadvantaged students seeking medical education
  • Stronger links with high school programs to ensure students are aware of the expectations of medical education and practice
  • Linkage of medical school admission with specific service requirements

These and many other options are controversial, highly complex to implement and individually incomplete solutions to the problems we’ve identified. In addition, we would be left with the fundamental issue of still not having enough places for what would be a slightly different, but no smaller applicant pool.

The second approach (increasing medical school positions) has, in Canada, been linked to considerations of physician supply. As thoughtfully reviewed recently by my friend and colleague Dr. Steven Archer, new Head of Medicine at Queen’s (http://deptmed.queensu.ca/blog/?p=266) and also by Dr. Reznick, Dean of Health Sciences (http://meds.queensu.ca/blog/?p=2072), this is a highly complex issue, with no clear data and considerable controversy currently swirling as to questions as fundamental as whether Canada is under or over-supplied with physicians. However, we might engage this issue somewhat differently if we reflect on two realities of modern medical education:

1. The MD degree historically designated readiness to engage medical practice. This has not been the case for at least 50 years. Although our MD programs all provide fundamental clinical training and experience, it is with the intention that students will transition to more intense and direct clinical involvement in their specialty based postgraduate years. In fact, graduates now require a minimum of two (and often up to 7) additional years of postgraduate training, predominantly based in clinical settings.

2. The major limitation to expanding undergraduate MD programs is the availability of appropriately supervised clinical practice experiences. Every medical school in Canada struggles with finding educationally rigourous clinical experiences for their students. The widespread development of regional programs and distributed educational models is largely a result of this challenge.

The logical possibility exists, therefore, to confine undergraduate medical education to foundational science, clinical science and clinical skills, leaving clinical practice to postgraduate training. It would therefore be possible to open undergraduate training to a much larger number of applicants. The “bottle-neck” in the system would therefore occur at the entry to postgraduate training, which would still be limited by clinical placement opportunities and tied to whatever information was available regarding societal requirements for physicians.

The advantages of such a program would be to allow a much larger number of students to enter what would be a shorter and much less expensive educational program, probably directly from high school. That program, properly constructed, would allow students to better understand the realities of medical education and practice, and allow for more standardized assessments on which postgraduate entry could be based. This provides an opportunity to repatriate many Canadians studying Medicine abroad. For students not successful in achieving postgraduate placements, such programs could, if appropriately constructed, provide a solid basis to pursue a variety of alternative career paths. Many of the socioeconomic barriers would be lessened.

Disadvantages are numerous, including loss of the supportive, patient and learner-centred atmosphere most medical schools currently achieve, and further dividing an already “siloed” medical education system. Such programs would, in essence, become more specifically designed pre-medical programs without assurance of admission to postgraduate training, and would require many graduates to seek alternative career paths. The very designation “M.D.” would fundamentally be devalued, unless an alternative application of the term were developed, possibly to be awarded at the end of clinical training.

And so, what began as a discussion of medical school admissions has evolved into a reconsideration of the entire educational paradigm, and the very meaning of the MD degree. I would personally find this approach highly unappealing as, I believe, would most Undergraduate Deans across the country.  So why raise it? Because the system is fundamentally flawed, the meaning of the MD degree has already changed substantially, and radical proposals have a way of focusing discussion, often toward useful ends.

I welcome your views.

Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Associate Dean,
Undergraduate Medical Education

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