Friday, March 28, 2014

A college junior wonders if she will get into med school

[Email abridged and edited.] A 21-year-old married woman, who is a junior at a large public university, has always wanted to be a doctor. She had some family and mental health problems (panic attacks, depression) which have affected her grades. She has a current GPA of 2.8, but when recalculated by including grades in repeated courses and deleting the poorer grades as her college allows, her GPA is 3.3. She and her husband have a combined $24K of student loan debt.

She feels very strongly that her family and mental health are no longer issues and is getting A's in science courses that she previously did poorly in. She says, "I seriously feel like a completely different person. I feel capable of getting good grades. However, people keep telling me that I might not even make it into med school because of my low GPA. The thing is though I don't care what I have to do. I am so passionate about learning and helping people. My dream has been to work and eventually have a free clinic on the side to help people who can't afford healthcare. That's why I'm in this. But is there a chance I can even get in? I know that's what I want, but people (peers, degree advisors, and my anatomy professor) keep bringing me down."

This is a very difficult question to answer definitively. I really can't speculate on your chances of being accepted to medical school. Your level of commitment is outstanding.

There is one missing variable—your MCAT scores.

You may want to take the MCAT at the next available opportunity. Great scores would be encouraging. Poor scores would seal the deal. You would have to move on to something else.

Your combined debt is low and you are young, both of which will allow you to spend a little extra time beefing up your GPA.

If you are thinking about applying to offshore medical schools, please do some research. As US medical schools expand their classes and new schools open, there will be fewer residency positions for offshore graduates. If you look at Table 1 on page 2 of the 2013 match data for International Medical Graduates (IMGs), you will see that 2420 US citizen IMGs failed to match to a residency position. It's only going to get worse as I noted here.
Have you considered another option such as becoming a physician assistant? The path is shorter, and PAs are becoming more and more autonomous. It might help you to look at a post of mine from a couple of months ago on "Ask Skepticalscalpel" called "Should I be a nurse practitioneror a doctor?" Read the many comments because they are pertinent.

I hope this is helpful to you. Check back here for comments as they are often more useful than what I write.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Help! My friend didn't match in orthopedics ... again

Maicon [not his real name] writes

My friend wanted to be an orthopedist, but his grades and USMLE scores were just average for medical school—Step 1 was 215. He applied last year, got some interviews but didn't match. He started a research fellowship in ortho at an academic center and re-applied. I tried to tell him to defer applying until he finished the fellowship so he could have something to show for it other than, "I started a fellowship and working on blah blah blah." This year, he got fewer interviews and failed to match again. During all this, I had advised him to also apply to general surgery, but he always resisted. He now has decided to try for an unfilled general surgery preliminary position.

I realize this is an elaborate discussion however you would be doing a major service for many applicants of this kind who have nothing to go on other than delusions or conspiratory paranoia.

Sad to say, but this happens every year.

The advice to do a year of orthopedic research was misguided. He has just wasted a year of his life.

I'm not sure what goes on in orthopedics. However, in a recent post on how general surgery program directors select residents, I noted that previous research experience was extremely low on the list of criteria as was having done a preliminary general surgery year.

I wonder how many who do a research year succeed in getting an orthopedic residency position. My guess would be less than 5%, if at all.

He should be honest in his application for the general surgery non-designated preliminary position. The program directors will know the truth anyway. The good news is that there are over 450 unfilled positions this year and not enough bodies to fill them.

The bad news is that these positions can be dead ends in many cases. That is, your friend could do a year or two of preliminary surgery and then have no access to a third-year categorical spot. Another issue is that in some programs, non-designated prelims are treated like second class citizens by being given all the scut rotations.

There is some hope though. Here's a paper that found an amazing rate of success for non-designated prelim surgery residents obtaining categorical positions, but it's from Mass General. Abington Memorial Hospital reported surprisingly good outcomes. Yale's results weren't quite as good. UC-Denver also had some mixed results. There could be some publication bias here. Programs with dismal records of placing prelim trainees may not have chosen to report their experiences.

If he does obtain a preliminary spot, he must work very hard and do very well on the general surgery in-training examination in the hope that someone drops out or is cut from a categorical position and that he will be selected to replace that individual. If not, he will chalk up one or two more wasted years.

A backup plan for a different specialty career should be in mind in case he is unable to eventually secure a categorical general surgery position.

My feeling is that if an applicant doesn't match in a dream specialty, he should forget about a year of research, scrap that dream, and move on.

As always, comments are welcome.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A med student asks about rural surgery training

Lionel, a first-year med student at a US school, writes

I'm really passionate about rural surgery and the idea of having a wide variety of procedures that you have to be able to take care of—ortho, c-sections, urology, ENT, abdomen, etc. But the thing is, everyone I talk to says this is an unreasonable expectation to have going forward as current training isn't conducive to learning all those things in 5 years, given the number of fellows present and the general trend towards super-specialization these days. Yet, I read about massive needs for rural general surgery. It doesn't quite add up. 

What is your take on this? Also, how do I go about pursuing a career as a rural surgeon in this academic/training environment? Community program? Academic program? I know Cooperstown, Oregon and Gunderson have rural surgery fellowships but I haven't heard anything about them or how to determine if you need to pursue this extra training.

Good questions.

An email exchange yielded more background information. He went to college in a rural area, has worked in an orphanage on a farm, and spent some time with physicians in rural Africa.

He has thought things through very well and seems quite committed to becoming a rural surgeon.

In medical school, he plans to do one elective in rural surgery and another at a hospital that serves as the primary clinic/surgical center for 160,000 people in a poor African country.

He is also going to spend a summer doing research at an academic center just to get an idea of what that is like.

I sent him some links to papers on the subject of rural surgery most of which he had already seen.

Here is what I think.

If you choose the right program, you would not have to take an extra year of fellowship to become a competent rural surgeon. For example, the Oregon program includes a year of rural surgery in their five-year curriculum for those who wish to do it.

There are some other programs besides the ones you named, and there may be more by the time you are ready to choose a residency. You might also think about programs with international rotations.

If you are truly committed to becoming a rural surgeon, a pure academic program is probably not for you. You are not likely to get enough diversified subspecialty experience in such a place. A community hospital program that offers a chance to rotate on some of the subspecialties and OB would be better, and there will be few or no fellows competing for cases.

I hope that some readers will contribute other perspectives to the discussion.