The truth about Caribbean medical schools

I graduated from St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada and now work as an emergency medicine physician at a trauma center in Northern California. To some, that may seem like an extreme jump or a rare success story. The stigma of a Caribbean medical school education is built on rumors — and they’ve run their course. Let’s address some.

1. Students only go to Caribbean medical schools if they aren’t good enough for U.S. schools.

The medical school admissions process is a difficult one to navigate, and many applicants come out looking at second, third, or fourth options. Historically, Caribbean schools were seen as a last resort — a final chance to open the door into medicine.

But this wasn’t my experience. St. George’s University was my first-choice medical school — in fact, it was my only choice. I fell in love with the opportunities that SGU provided to help me build my career serving international and limited-resource populations. I suspected that SGU held unique options that would help me to mold my career down the road, and I wasn’t wrong.

I now work on the board of advisors for Flying Doctors of America, a medical organization that provides medical relief to populations in need around the globe. I have built a hybrid career based around my full-time emergency department work. Part of the reason this has been so successful is because I wasn’t limited by what other people told me my medical career should look like. I was the first in my family to enter medicine, and growing alongside equally unique individuals at SGU only strengthened my belief that I could create a career I envisioned for myself.

2. Your only hope of matching for residency, if you match at all, is in primary care.

Regardless of the institution name on your medical school diploma, the Match can be difficult. While the number of residency spots has been increasing, so has the number of applicants.

But an application that has impact is more than just the name of a school — it’s a reflection of the future physician. For many residency programs, a solid application extends far beyond the first page of your CV. Many of my former SGU classmates are a testament to that, having celebrated successes in specialties such as PM&R, cardiothoracic surgery, neurology, general surgery, and dermatology. I believe that the limit is where you place it, and many of my former classmates didn’t let the perceptions of others define their limits. I would encourage prospective students to do the same.

3. People will look at you differently for the rest of your career.

A Caribbean medical school education is not a scarlet letter. Some may still look at it with judgment, but ultimately, it’s about being able to demonstrate knowledge and competency. Many Caribbean medical students rotate among students from some of the most well-respected schools in the U.S., and in my experience, their clinical knowledge and skills are easily comparable.

If you love what you do, if you are good at what you do, and if you work hard and care about your patients, you will be able to stand up and say that you are a proud graduate of your alma mater — wherever that may be.

4. You have to face extra hurdles to get licensed.

There are hurdles to licensure regardless of where you obtain your medical education. ECFMG certification is required of all foreign medical school graduates, which is extra paperwork compared to U.S. graduates. California also has its own requirement, the PTAL, but this is not limited to foreign grads.

Paperwork is not a hurdle, it is a part of medicine, whether we like it or not. Licensure in itself is a stressful process, but once it is completed, it’s worth every step.

5. You’ll be buried in debt for the rest of your life.

Medical school is expensive. There is no question about that. There are some schools that are moving toward unburdening students from tuition, but that process is slow and limited so far to a handful of schools in the U.S. Ultimately, medical education is an investment and there are few things in life better to invest in than yourself. Perhaps tuition is higher at a Caribbean medical school, but if it’s ultimately the best fit, it’s a worthwhile investment.

For those considering a Caribbean medical school, it’s worth reaching out to someone who has been through the process. There are plenty of us who have walked in your shoes before you and can help guide you. It might not be a great fit for everybody. But, it was for me. And it might be for you, too.

Jessica K. Willett is an emergency physician and can be reached on Twitter @jkwillettmd.

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