Advice for a second year medical student

A rising second year medical student read some of my posts and wrote me a kind note asking if I would write something for students. I taught students and ran surgical clerkships at community teaching hospitals for my entire career until about 19 months ago.

I also was prompted to address this subject after reading a recent New York Times story about a new admissions policy at Mt. Sinai Medical School.

The school is accepting some students who are majoring in the humanities and are not required to take the usual science courses or the MCAT. In the words of one of the participants in the program: “I didn’t want to waste a class on physics, or waste a class on orgo [organic chemistry]. The social determinants of health are so much more pervasive than the immediate biology of it.” I agree that possibly “orgo” and probably physics are not necessarily essential for medical school applicants. But I think these courses are still relevant because they assess one’s ability to think.

According to the article, these humanities students are faring as well as traditional students as far as grades and class rankings are concerned. Is this because science doesn’t really matter or could there be another reason?

Grades in medical schools are a joke. Let’s talk about the third year. If you look at the explanation of grades that comes with a student’s medical school transcript, you will find that the average distribution of grades in third-year clerkships in all subjects is something like this: honors 30%; pass 68%; low pass 2%. It is almost impossible to flunk out of any medical school in the United States. I once received an application for residency from a student who had been matriculating at a single medical school for TEN YEARS! I assure you that dean’s letter was a masterpiece. [More on deans’ letters below] And the fourth year of medical school is even worse. With few exceptions, most schools allow students to choose electives which may be taken just about anywhere on the planet. There are no objective measures of performance on electives and students are even more likely to receive honors grades in electives than in required courses.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass. See also Bill Clinton “It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.” And “It depends on how you define alone…”]

Carroll’s quotation is not only applicable to Humpty Dumpty but it also describes most deans’ letters supporting student applications to residency training programs. Obfuscation is the name of the game. Until just a few years ago, deans did not even have to mention such things as failing a course, dropping out of school for a year or disciplinary actions. The letters all continue to read like public relations releases. The best part is the end where the dean uses an adjective, which in many instances is a code that tells the reader what the student’s class rank is, to describe the student. Some of my favorites from real dean’s letters are as follows [highest to lowest and, where indicated, % of the class receiving that adjective]:

School A—outstanding, excellent, superior, very good, good;
School B— superior 20%, outstanding 20%, excellent 30%, very good 20%, good 7%, solid 3% [I guess “solid” could mean the student is dense as a rock.];
School C—superior “a few,” outstanding 25%, excellent 65%, very good 20%. I know it doesn’t add up to 100% so talk to the dean. Also, the worst student in the class was very good.

Yes, medical school resembles that famous fictional town in the Midwest. “Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” [Garrison Keillor]

As far as I know, most medical schools are teaching surgery just like they did 40 years ago. What is Hesselbach’s triangle? What is Charcot’s triad? Second assist on a bunch of cases. Get the lab results from the computer so they can be re-entered in the computer in a progress note. And so on. Now that an entire surgical textbook can be carried in your cell phone, why don’t we change the paradigm? Rather than forcing you to memorize information, we should be teaching you how analyze and synthesize it as it relates to your patient.

The third-year surgery rotation in medical school is not a necessarily a good simulation of what it’s like to be a surgical resident. I can’t say what goes on in every school, but the last school I was affiliated with allowed students to take off the day after call. I never could figure out why since we only woke them for major cases at night and they usually slept most of the time. All I could say was, “It’s your tuition [$45K/year] and if you want to go home, it’s OK with me.” By the way, we at the affiliated hospitals never saw a penny of that tuition money. I’m not sure exactly where it was spent. I think that the way students are coddled on surgery rotations might be a factor resulting in the high attrition rate [about 25%] of surgery residents; i.e., it looks easy from the perspective of a student who does not do much.

Fourth year is out of control. In addition to the grade problem mentioned above, students are permitted to choose just about any rotation they want in the fourth year. This leads to tragic situations such as the student who takes four or five orthopedic electives in order to get noticed and then does not secure an orthopedic residency in the match. He will have wasted a good part of his fourth year.

One of the many unintended consequences of the electronic medical record [EMR] is the demise of medical student progress notes and orders. There is no provision for such activities in most EMRs. I have no idea how students are learning how to do these things.

My advice to my new friend, the rising second-year student, is that you should work hard and study hard during your surgery rotation in the third year. Be inquisitive. Be skeptical. Ask why. In my 38 years or so of teaching students, I estimate that I was challenged by a student on something I said fewer than five times. [Disclaimer #1: Not all authority figures like to be challenged. Choose your targets wisely. Be respectful.]

If you want to be a general surgeon, take one surgery elective in the fourth year just to be sure you are making the right choice. Then take electives in gastroenterology, critical care, radiology [Not just because of the hours. You will need to know how to read a CT scan in the middle of the night unless you want to wait a couple of hours for the nighthawk to fax a reading.], anesthesiology and other non-surgical rotations. [Disclaimer #2: This is my opinion and it may not be shared by others.]

Skeptical Scalpel is a surgeon blogs at his self-titled site, Skeptical Scalpel.

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