I can’t quite describe the feeling of sitting in the audience of my medical school graduation this past month. Among the rows of students anxiously awaiting the graduating class, I felt like an anomaly. When the newly minted doctors came down the aisle, my heart skipped a beat.
The truth is I should have been in that processional. I should have been an MD by now. No, I didn’t flunk out of medical school. I just left.
When I decided to leave medical school for a year, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to pursue my passion for public health and research, interests that had developed in college as a volunteer in free health clinics in Detroit, MI. The training seemed even more necessary as I practiced medicine in my third year. I saw how there were gaping holes in our medical system and how physicians alone couldn’t solve compounding health inequities. I decided an accelerated Masters of Public Health in between my third and fourth years of medical school was the best option to take.
Although I left alone among the rows of students at graduation, I know I’m not. Several of my classmates also took a year off — some for professional reasons like pursuing a Masters or conducting a research fellowship. Others took time away from medical school to start their families or for their own health reasons before residency.
Although there is no official statistics on the number of students who take time off of medical school, a recent study suggest that about a third of students do it to increase their competitiveness for a residency program, while another 23 percent want to pursue other academic interests. This trend speaks to the evolution of physicians and medical education at large.
More medical students are interested in a career that combines clinical practice with something else. Whether that is research, teaching, or advocacy among others, medical students are expanding their careers opportunities outside of the patient setting.
This trend is increasingly normalized nationally with research programs like those at the National Institute of Health or Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that continue to encourage students to take time away from medical school to improve their research acumen. In addition, some schools offer physician-scientist training programs like the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, where students start medical school knowing they will take a year off to pursue research. Other places like the University of Michigan School of Medicine offers students an opportunity to pursue research through the Masters of Science in Clinical Research, a fully funded year of research-oriented courses and independent research.
These programs are meant to incentivize research training and ensure students get the additional preparation needed to be competitive in various residency applications and beyond. It is no wonder that students who leave medical school with dual degrees are often afforded more opportunities in their residency choices and far down the road as attending physicians. I was assured of this as I scrolled through the leadership directories of various hospitals.
In the context of these new trends in medical education, explaining my decision to my family and community members was no easy task. Some perplexingly asked what I would do now that I didn’t want to be a doctor. Others recommended I find a career that was less demanding than medicine. But, most understood why the additional training was so vital in the changing health care landscape.
In a time when the American Health Care Act is proposing to repeal the Prevention and Public Health Fund as well as completely defund Planned Parenthood, it is important that medical students consider their roles outside of the clinical setting.
For me, it was simple: I not only wanted to address the health of my patients individually, but also at the population level. Although I was trained in diagnosing and treating illness in medical school, I really wanted to learn how to prevent them. I wanted to learn how to sustain health and restore wellness. Ultimately, I knew that I needed the additional training to shape my career as a hybrid physician — one that could see patients, engage in community research, help teach future physicians, and shape health policies.
As I watched my former classmates take their Hippocratic Oath at graduation this past month, I was both relieved and anxious. I still had a year left of medical school to complete and a residency application process to navigate through. Although I had this new public health knowledge, I wasn’t exactly sure what would come of it years later. Yet, I felt a sense of relief knowing that my additional training afforded me new opportunities in the long term.
Emman Dabaja is a medical student.
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