Monday, February 25, 2013

Non-US citizen at a Caribbean med school wonders what his chances are for getting a surgical residency

"Leighton" (not his real name) writes,

I'm a 4th yr medical student hoping to match into general surgery in 2014. The only hurdle is that I'm an international medical graduate (IMG). I'm a non-US citizen at a Caribbean med school.

I have done all my core rotations which include IM, Psych, Gen Surg, Peds and OB/GYN. So far I have all As in my rotations. I did my surgery rotation at Elsewhere General Hospital in the Midwest. It's a community hospital without a surgery residency program.

I have a pretty good USMLE step 1 score (247) and will be writing step 2 in the coming months. Since you have been a residency director, what can I do to improve my chances? What do residency programs look at? What programs might be more IMG-friendly? Surgery is quite competitive, do I have a chance as an IMG or should I focus my electives more for IM or Family med?

Data for the 2012 match (page 5) shows that general surgery filled 1143 (99.7%) of 1146 available categorical positions via the match. Of the 1143 who matched, 57 (4.9%) were non-US citizen IMGs.

While your USMLE score is very good, I don't know if it puts you in the top 5% of all non-US IMGs. 

I'm afraid it is difficult to judge what your grades mean, but that is also a problem with US med school grades. (See a previous blog of mine.) Certainly, all 'A's are better than all 'B's in any school. But how many students in your school get all 'A's?

The only way to find out if a program is IMG friendly is to go to each program's website and see where their current residents are from. Here's a link from ERAS, that gives the web addresses for all of the general surgery programs in the US.

See if your school has any information on how many of its students matched in general surgery over the last two or three years, what their records were like and where they matched. You might also try to contact a couple of those students for advice too.

I'm not sure how to improve your chances. Doing research never impressed me unless it was clinical research that resulted in a published paper in a journal that I had heard of. You might explore elective rotations at some programs that you know have taken non-US IMGs.

The way the match works favors the applicant. You have nothing to lose by trying to match in surgery. If you fail to get a categorical spot, you have two options. You can take a preliminary position and hope to work your way into a categorical one. There were 737 484* surgical prelim positions open after the match last year. However, that can be risky if no categorical spots open up.

Or you could go into internal medicine, which had only 51 unmatched positions or family medicine which had 149. The link to the NRMP match statistics shows all the specialties and how they fared in the 2012 match.

If you decide to pursue surgery, you will need to tailor your electives accordingly. I have written about fourth-year electives.

I hope this helps. Good luck and let us know how it went after next year's match.

[*Number of unfilled prelim positions corrected on 2/27.]

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Does OR staff hair cause infections?

“Zlatan” (not his real name) writes:

I just recently found your blog and read about shaving patients and agree with all that you said. My question is about the staff's hair. Sorry if you have addressed this, I couldn't find it. 
I work at a VA hospital in surgery. I have been in the OR environment for 30 years and have seen quite a lot and been through many inspections. We had an independent nurse evaluate us for upcoming JCAHO inspection. We 'failed' due to not covering facial hair and chest hair with scrub attire and in addition were told folks with hairy arms needed long-sleeve scrub tops. Of course this comes from the all powerful AORN. Being an evidence-based person at heart, I began to look for some evidence regarding covering up (that is how I stumbled onto your blog). Do you have any knowledge of evidence based practice regarding hair covering and infection rates? I appreciate your time.

Great question. Where do they come up with these things? Chest hair? Arm hair? Long-sleeve scrub tops?

For the record, I am against wound infections. I would do anything reasonable to try to prevent them.

I suspect your independent nurse evaluator may have over-interpreted the rules. My distaste for the Joint Commission (by the way, it’s no longer called “JCAHO”) runs deep, but I don’t think even they have thought of those wrinkles to the hair issue.

It is possible though as the JC and the AORN seemed to be obsessed with hair.

How does one define "hairy arms"? I assume long sleeve scrub tops would be for the circulating nurse only. If the surgeon and the scrub tech wore long sleeves, they wouldn’t be able to properly wash their hands and arms.

Regarding the chest hair, are we talking male or female staff? (Just kidding.)

As far as I know, there is not one shred of evidence linking shed skin or hair on the head, face, chest or arms of OR staff to patient infections. This is after an exhaustive search of PubMed, CDC, and holding nothing back, I even crowd-sourced the question on Twitter.

In case some readers missed my post on the ritual of clipping the hair of patients before surgery, the link is here. The post was about rules that people make up without any justification to drive us all crazy.

I collected several such rules related to presumed infection prevention in the comments section of that post and elsewhere. Here they are.

No forced-air warming until patient is draped.
No briefcases in the OR.
No one may enter the room without the circulator's permission.
No room warming as it may cause condensation on surgical instruments. (Children and burn victims who may become hypothermic be damned!)
Remove masks every time you leave the OR. And no letting them hang down with just the lower tie done.
Masks must be worn by anyone in the scrub sink area even if that person is not scrubbing but just walking by.
All OR personnel must wear long sleeves because of the potential for "shedding skin."

But the independent nurse reviewer has spoken. I’m betting that long sleeve scrub tops and chest and arm hair police will soon appear in your OR.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A patient wants to know when to speak up

Matthew writes:

My only experience with the medical profession is strictly as a patient. I'm wondering what is an appropriate balance between being an educated patient (willing to ask questions, make observations, etc.) versus being one of those supposedly "self-educated" know-it-all patients that I'm sure are one of the banes of a doctor's existence.

We've all heard the stories of the patient whose doctor didn't listen to their concerns until it was too late, but on the other hand, I don't deny that my doctor knows worlds more about my body than I do, or ever will.
I want to trust my doctor, but without having to blindly accept whatever he tells me. Yet I've dealt with members of the medical community who see anything BUT blind acceptance as a personal affront.

As such, is there ever a time to research symptoms online before making an appointment? Is there ever a time to disagree with a diagnosis? Is there ever a time to request or ask about alternate treatments? And if so, how can this be done in a way that is respectful to my physician?

You ask some excellent questions.

I’m not sure I have all the answers. I hope some of my physician colleagues will comment. 

There is a fine and very fuzzy line between asking good questions and being a pain in the ass. And that line is drawn in different places by different doctors. It ranges from zero tolerance for questions (See Dr. Sung on “Monday Mornings,” who, when asked a question about a procedure he recommended, said, “Not do—dead.”) to the most open-minded, usually a primary care doc or psychiatrist. There are issues of time, urgency, the physician’s perception of the patient’s level of understanding, the complexity of the disease or operation and many more.

I had no problem with patients who researched their symptoms online. However, I would hate it when a patient brought a portfolio with 100 pages of downloaded material for me to comment on. There is a lot of garbage on the Internet.

I think you should always ask what your options are. Informed consent discussions should include the risks, benefits and alternatives for any procedure. The doctor should also tell you what the risks and benefits of the alternatives are too.

Go with your gut. If what the doctor says to do does not sound right, say you will think it over. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Run away quickly from any doctor who discourages second opinions. I always encouraged second opinions for patients who were reluctant to have surgery I recommended. I felt that if I was proposing the right thing, the second opinion doctor would support me.

One of the worst things a patient can do is be too acquiescent to the physician. I used to tell patients “Don’t worry about hurting your doctor’s feelings. This is your life we are talking about. The doctor will get over it. If she doesn’t, you don’t want her as a doctor anyway.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Another question about choosing a specialty, this time from a wife

I recently came across your blog, and I have found it very insightful. What you can recommend in terms of advice for my husband and me. My husband is a 3rd year medical student, and he is not sure what type of residency he wants to go into. He has finished most of the required clerkships (peds, surgery, surgery sub-specialty, and family). Currently, he is finishing up internal med, and will do psych next, then obgyn. We constantly check in on what he is interested in, and weigh the pros can cons of each in terms of possible residency choices. He loves ped surgery, surgery, emergency med, and certain aspects of internal med. What he and I find most challenging, is how does he pick between medicine and surgery, when you've only had limited exposure to both, and enjoy both? What type of advice can you give regarding this aspect?

Also, what advice could you offer to the spouses of a medical student? I want my husband to be happy in his chosen field, but I just want to make sure that I AM happy as well. For instance, my husband LOVES peds surgery; however, it is a long road to get there and extremely competitive. If he did decide to go this route, then it would be years of general surgery residency, fellowships, research and with only 30 pediatric surgery spots in the nation, it might be near impossible to get into. If he did decide to do this, I would never see him (and I'm already finding medical school difficult because we hardly see each other). So, I'm hoping you have some insight or words of wisdom regarding what kind of advice and support will be beneficial for both of us during this difficult time? I don't want him to go through years of medical school, only to "settle" for a specialty that will not give him any joy or purpose. However, I want to make sure that I will be happy, and I know "settling" for certain specialties gives you a decent work/family balance. Is there any advice you can provide regarding this very important decision in his medical career, and any possible next steps?

Good questions and I'm afraid there are no simple answers.

Here's a link to a blog I wrote (which contains a link to yet another) on the subject. Both pertain more to the situation with married female doctors but much is universal.

Peds surgery is pretty competitive with about 2+ applicants for every slot. Last year there were 40 positions offered. Here's a link to the data:

Go to page 61 for the peds surgery stats. All other fellowships that are NRMP matched are in this report.

Unless your husband does something that's a 9 to 5 specialty like derm (also very competitive) or radiation oncology, long hours are part of the deal. Also, the degree of boredom of a specialty is inversely proportional to the hours. For example, PM&R is very boring but the hours are short.

I have always maintained that one must choose a specialty that one likes and not base the choice on money, prestige or hours. Your husband will have to go to work every day for 35-40 years. It's hard to do that if you hate it. There are a lot of unhappy docs out there and many of them did not choose their specialties wisely.

I wish I had a magic solution for you and him. I regret I do not.