Posts Tagged ‘medical education’

Theft? Madness is more like it

March 13, 2012 1 comment

In the process of catching up on Google Reader post-convention, I came across this recent post from Robert Centor criticizing a recent NY Times Magazine article alleging that ‘America is stealing [sic] the world’s doctors.’ As Dr. Centor rightly points out, this is utter nonsense, on multiple levels. In this post, I want to address the aspect of the “foreign doctor/brain drain” question that applies to students like me; in the next I talk about physician and other “brain drain” more generally.

As a student at an LCME-accredited American medical school, I don’t fall into the “international medical graduate” (IMG) category in quite the same way as those in the article. And despite the fact that I’m “only” Canadian, I’m still foreign enough to have to figure out where my next visa will come from for residency, fellowship, and beyond. This post will not be an extended disquisition on the finer points of American immigration law and visa classifications (subjects with which I am far too familiar). You will, however, get a taste of how dysfunctional the American approach to foreign physicians is, especially at a time marked by widespread predictions of an impending doctor shortage.

Most public medical schools in the US and many private schools will not even consider non-citizen/non-permanent resident (foreign) applicants. Those of us who do get an offer somewhere find that we are not eligible for US government financial aid, and for a great deal of school-based aid as well. Despite this, we still benefit indirectly from taxpayer subsidies. Tuition makes up a minuscule fraction of medical school revenue; according to SUMS‘s tax returns, our tuition barely covers the costs of the medical education and educational technology support staff. Nothing more. The rest comes from patient care revenues and various grants, much of which in turn comes from the taxpayer.

After receiving a medical education at great personal financial cost (debt), yet one that’s also heavily subsidized by the US taxpayer, the expectation is that we go home. Or at least leave the country. Completing post-graduate training in the US requires finding residency programs that are willing to sponsor one of the two main types of visas that can be used for this purpose: the J-1 comes with a 95% iron-clad requirement to leave the US and work in one’s home country for two years upon completion of training before one can come back to this country; the H-1B comes with a 100% iron-clad time limit of six years (for reference, here is a list of residency length by field, not including sub-specialty fellowships). Even assuming one could find and be accepted into a program that will sponsor either visa, neither seems particularly conducive to “theft” of foreign physicians.

Unlike in medical school, foreigners in US residencies and fellowships often do benefit from direct US taxpayer subsidy, as Medicare pays for most residency positions, including salary and benefits. So what happens to foreigners who receive direct government subsidies to train in their specialty?

Again, the expectation is that we will go home (in the case of the J-1 visa), or at least leave the country (in the case of the H-1B). The United States is one of the few, perhaps the only, developed country that requires all long-term immigrants to be sponsored by an employer or a family member. There is no “points” system for independent applicants; no way for someone like me to prove that I’m smart, talented, possess in-demand skills, and probably ought to be allowed to stay indefinitely (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars of subsidy I will have enjoyed by this point). More shockingly, there’s seemingly no desire on the part of the US government to hold on to the medical talent that it paid to develop.

What employer would sponsor a foreign physician? Moreover, what employer would sponsor any employee for permanent residence before at least a few years of full-time employment have passed? The H-1B comes with a six-year time limit; look at the length of various residencies at the link above. We’re short primary care physicians (3 years), yes, but we’ll be short general surgeons (5 years) and cardiologists (6 years) as well.

I, and those in my situation, are the lucky ones, comparatively. We don’t even have to jump through extra hoops for medical licensure and board certification the way “real” IMGs have to. It’s a wonder anyone manages this at all.

If the United States is “stealing” [sic] foreign physicians, it’s one of the most tragically/comically inept thieves I’ve heard of. Even in my “easy” case, after I will have spent 7+ years being educated at world-class American schools (11+ if you count college), the US is happy and indeed seemingly eager to see me go.

Some people would approach this conundrum entirely differently. They would argue that because foreigners in the American medical training process receive indirect and then direct government subsidies, the process should be closed to them in the first place. I understand the logic, but this strikes me as doubling-down on the foolishness of the current system. Getting into medical school and residency is frighteningly competitive. Being a foreigner only makes it harder. I make no claims as to myself, but one would therefore expect the marginal foreign applicant to be at least as good as the marginal American applicant… if not better. That some of them manage to stay in the US to practice medicine even in spite of the numerous hurdles along the way should suggest even more strongly that these are the people you want to hold on to.

Baby Steps

January 23, 2012 1 comment

It seems that I still need to work on announcing my hiatuses (hiati?) from blogging prospectively. If even CMS has agreed to assign Medicare beneficiaries to ACOs on an ex ante basis, I really have no excuse.

*crickets chirping*

In my defence, I am a second-year medical student, though you might not know it from my taste in health reform jokes.

It isn’t that the content of medical school is intrinsically difficult. In a refreshing change from my previous education in economics and social sciences, there are usually right answers. Unambiguously right answers that rest on a foundation of the (usually) internally consistent logic of human pathophysiology. There are fewer clinically-relevant “models” per se, and their assumptions rarely engender as much bitter controversy as those in… say… macroeconomics. To be fair, my contention that the kidney only makes sense if you posit the existence of a sodium/unicorn dust exchanger in the loop of Henle took a while to gain acceptance.

*more crickets chirping*

What makes medical school hard isn’t the material. It’s the volume that gives us a run for our money. Not only do we have to learn “everything” in two years or less, we have to remember it. For Step 1.

(If you’re a second-year medical student, consider stopping here. For your sanity, of course)

Physicians in the United States are licensed, as are physicians in countries like Canada, the UK, Australia… probably most others. As one might expect, physicians in the US are expected to pass a nationally standardized exam to qualify for licensure. As in Canada, there is one part that is taken before entering post-graduate training, and another part that is taken after at least one year of residency.

However, as politicians are quick to remind us, the US is exceptional. Because in my poking around medical licensure systems of similar countries, the United States Medical Licensing Exam is the only test with anything like Step 1.

(I said it again. Second years, I warned you.)

The simplest way to describe Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam is as follows: a seven hour long, 322 multiple-choice question, 78 seconds-per-question final exam for the first two years of medical school.

An exam with sacred texts known to medical students across the country: First Aid; Goljan; Robbins Review; the Q-Books; BRS; High Yield

An exam for which completing a few thousand practice questions is considered “barely enough.”

An exam that plays a significant role in whether you’ll get accepted into the residency program, or even the specialty, of your choice.

An exam for which most students are given 5-8 weeks of time off in which to study full-time right before taking it.

An exam for which many students start studying six months in advance. Which for me is… now.

I tell you all of this because between now and mid-May (when 5 week journey of discovery and practice questions begins in earnest) my posting will be even more infrequent than before, and those posts that are written may well feature less of the policy commentary you’ve grown accustomed to and more… “medical student stuff.” That said, I assure you it will continue to be worth your time.

As for your intrepid blogger/test-taker… despite my flair for the dramatic, I’ll be fine. Just under six months from today, I take the next step on the road to licensure. I will take that seven-hour, 322-question exam. And I will crush it. You heard it here first.

Some Friendly, Unsolicited Advice for PNHP

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP), as the name suggests, is the biggest and best-known group of American physicians who support replacing the current health care system with a national single-payer. I used to be a big booster of this idea, but it doesn’t take much poking around this website to figure out that my feelings towards American single-payer reform have cooled considerably (to say the least).

I’ve been fortunate to attend a number of events run by senior PNHP officers at SUMS and at other venues (e.g. the AMSA conference back in March). At one of the more recent events, I had the privilege of speaking at length to some of their representatives at length. As you might expect, the resulting discussion was direct but cordial.

Though I disagree with their proposed policies, I do respect PNHP as an organization. It is one of the biggest mobilizers of physicians and medical students who are in favour of radically changing how American health care operates. Their passion is palpable at even the most informal event. They do have a contribution to make to the health policy conversation. Unfortunately, while there is an intellectually-coherent case to be made for single-payer (a mistaken case, in my view, but respectable and honest), I have yet to hear it from anybody at PNHP (n=small).

I harbour no illusions about my ability to persuade hard-core single-payer believers in a short blog post. I do, however, have some friendly and hopefully helpful advice on how to talk to the uninitiated and the un-converted more productively:

1) Don’t try to twist the data to support your case. It shows. At best, data on Medicare-vs.-private administrative costs are equivocal, cross-country infant mortality comparisons are spurious, life expectancy at birth captures a lot of mortality that is out of the hands of the healthcare system, and so on. The empirical case for single-payer superiority is thin gruel.

2) When someone asks whether you’d trust a Republican President and Congress to implement single-payer well, don’t duck the question. It’s a more important one than you seem to acknowledge. If you want to centralize control in government, be prepared to talk about how you will deal with your ideological opponents who tend to win elections every now and then.

3) Your moral argument is a lot stronger than your empirical argument. Why not make it explicit? Americans don’t tend towards collectivism, but neither are most people data-oriented policy wonks. Instead of making a weak case based on weak data, you should be prepared to talk about the moral strengths of single-payer relative to the alternatives. Where are the mentions of equity, obligation, and collectivism? (I ask this seriously, not passive-aggressively)

4) Be fluent in the language business, politics, and economics. When your executives are being matched point-for-point by medical students who majored in biochemistry and similar fields, you know you have a problem. If you’re going to call for the dismantling of private insurance, have some idea of how the sector actually operates. If you want to give control of the health system to government, be able to discuss the nuances of Washington power structures. Be able to respond to phrases like “deadweight loss,” “price-vs.-income problems,” and “underwriting” with more than a blank stare.

5) Anecdotes are rarely dispositive of policy questions. When someone points this out about anecdotes involving people you know, don’t get offended; this rarely advances discussion. When you introduce your friend’s problems to the debate, it’s not your opponent who’s trying to use them to score “cheap points.”

6) Milton Friedman is said to have told an up-and-coming Walter Williams, after the latter appeared on TV to discuss school choice, that “[Williams] was right about everything but [had] made one mistake […], when you talk about liberty, you have to smile.” You may not be talking about liberty as Friedman understood the term, but his advice is every bit as applicable.


AAMC Follies: The New MCAT

May 6, 2011 3 comments

The Association of American Medical Colleges made a splash this week with the release of preliminary recommendations for changes to the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), to take effect in 2015. The proposal getting the most press is the expansion of the scope of the test to include material from the social sciences, statistics, ethics, philosophy, “cross-cultural studies,” and other assorted non-science topics.

Given that the AAMC is one of the organizations raising the alarm about a looming physician shortage, it’s interesting to see that one of their responses is to ever-so-slightly raise the barrier to entry to medical school. That’s one heckuva cartel I’ve got on my side!

Of course, given the enormous mismatch between the number of medical school applicants and medical school spots, this change will not actually reduce the number of medical students (and as readers of this blog know, the real bottleneck is the number of residency slots). It will, however, increase the amount of time, effort, and money needed in order to meet the basic requirements for medical school admission. I suspect the test prep companies will fare especially well.

That said, I’m skeptical that the proposed MCAT changes are that worthwhile. I would be surprised if they do much, if anything, to address the concerns that seem to be motivating them. Here’s why.

1) Unless implemented very thoughtfully, inclusion of social science content will trivialize it by making it simply “another box to check” while studying. The USMLE has had limited success with this; can AAMC really do better?

The two recommendations from the the “MR5” report that seem to be driving much of the hubbub are these two:

3. Test examinees’ knowledge and use of the concepts in behavioral and social sciences, research methods, and statistics that provide a solid foundation for medical students’ learning about the behavioral and socio-cultural determinants of health.
4. Test examinees’ ability to analyze and reason through passages in ethics and philosophy, cross-cultural studies, population health, and a wide range of social sciences and humanities disciplines to ensure that students possess the necessary critical thinking skills to be successful in medical school.

I’m on record as a fervent supporter of making statistical fluency a pre-requisite for entry to medical school (or a college degree, for that matter). If this change leads to an increase in the statistical literacy of future medical students, that’s a plus. Similarly, as a former economics major, I am fully aware of the applicability of various social science concepts and techniques to the medical field. If a standardized test can assess the ability to analyze ethical and philosophical problems, so much the better (though I would imagine that it would be more likely to measure familiarity with the key buzzwords from each discipline).

The risk of including these topics on the MCAT is that by making these disciplines part of “just another hoop to jump through,” the test won’t be able to adequately evaluate the analytical ability and engagement with the material that the AAMC seems to value. Lest you dismiss this as an idle concern, here’s an actual question from a gold-standard review book for the US Medical Licensing Exam. Step 1 of the USMLE includes questions on sociocultural topics, ethical topics, the doctor-patient relationship, and the same “cross-cultural studies” that will soon be added to the MCAT.

A 40-year-old woman who recently had back surgery does not complain of pain, although magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) reveal re-herniation of the disc with significant nerve involvement. Of the following, this woman is most likely to be of

(A) Welsh descent
(B) Puerto Rican descent
(C) Greek descent
(D) Italian descent
(E) Mexican descent

[(A) is the correct answer, because “Anglo Americans tend to be more stoic and less vocal about pain than to Americans of Mediterranean or Latino descent”]

(from Fadem, B. Behavioral Science in Medicine. LWW, 2004. p. 326)

The chapter for which this question was written is entitled “Culture and Illness;” it reads like a checklist of stereotypes about various ethnic and cultural groups. I have yet to figure out what real value this adds to my skills and maturation as a physician. If this sort of content is to be included on the MCAT, the AAMC will have to do a much better job for it to be worthwhile and meaningful.

2) The MCAT is not the tool by which to evaluate candidates’ personalities. That’s what interviews, essays, and recommendations are for.

The MR5 recommendations continue.

To help medical schools consider data on integrity, service orientation, and other personal
characteristics early in student selection, the AAMC should:
13. Vigorously pursue options for gathering data about personal characteristics through a new section of the AMCAS application, which asks applicants to reflect on experiences that demonstrate their personal
characteristics, and through standardized letters that ask recommenders to rate and write about behaviors that demonstrate applicants’ personal and academic characteristics.
14. Mount a rigorous program of research on the extent to which applicants’ personal characteristics might be measured along with other new tools on test day, or as part of a separate regional or national event, or locally by admissions committees using nationally developed tools.

Lots of people think medical schools should look “beyond test scores” and focus more on “personality” when judging applicants. Dr. Pauline Chen, writing at the New York Times, thinks so. The UChicago medical student with whom I discussed this on Twitter thinks so. Many of my classmates think so. I probably think so as well, but then I can’t pretend to know how these decisions are actually made in real life as it is.

The idea that mastery of social science content (or lists of stereotypes, as seen above) correlates meaningfully to personality is dubious, to put it charitably. Also, with pre-meds being who they (we?) are, I’m skeptical that any dedicated “personality test” section on the MCAT would last more than a couple of years without being dissected, gamed, studied-for, and meaningless as a gauge of an applicant’s character.

If it’s personality that you want in your medical students, the MCAT is not how you’re going to sort them. If the AAMC wants to create standardized tools to help medical schools evaluate applicants without actually needing to interview them (as recommendation #14 seems to imply), then they should go for it. I would think, though, that different medical schools might want different types of students. A one-size-fits all assessment might not serve every school’s needs equally well.

If the MCAT is over-weighted in the admissions process, then the real issue is how it’s used, not what it tests. It’s also worth pointing out that as long as medical school deans care about their US News & World Report rankings, they will place non-trivial emphasis on their entering students’ MCAT scores. That’s a pretty big counterweight to any movement to increase the weighting of “personality” in medical school admissions.

(Briefly discussed later in this post: what personality traits do we want in all of our medical students, why do we want those traits, and are medical schools really being flooded with so many applicants who lack them?)

3) Medicine is about service, but it’s still an applied science.

A common theme in the reactions of some of my classmates (and Dr. Chen’s NY Times piece) is that the MCAT and/or the medical school admissions process is too heavily focused on mastery of science. (Did I mention that I was an Economics major?). While the science content of the MCAT could certainly stand to be tweaked, I would hesitate to write it off completely. It is still the best predictor of success in medical school (where “success” is “not failing out during the preclinical years”), and the only standardized means of comparing science ability across applicants. What has helped me get through the first year of medical school has not been my social science background (though it has helped). It’s been the solid science foundation that I got in undergrad alongside my economics coursework.

If students want to help others and save the world without needing to take those pesky, difficult science courses, there are plenty of other career options open to them. Medicine still requires comfort with science, and that is the reality that we’re stuck with for the foreseeable future.

(For more on why science should not be viewed as an “obstacle” to medical school admission, I urge you to consult the ever-worth-reading David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine).

3a) Barriers to entry to medicine should not be arbitrarily and artificially increased, but it’s worth pointing out that medicine is a field that requires dedication… or at least that’s what they told me.

This is a minor point, but an important one. In my cynical estimation, there are three sorts of people who would want to become practicing physicians in this day and age: the naive; the passionate; and the crazy. Medical training is a long and arduous process, and the practice of medicine in the US isn’t about to get easier in our lifetimes. If someone is discouraged from going into medicine because of the MCAT… what would they do when confronted with Step 1 of the USMLE? The MCAT isn’t a personality test and shouldn’t be used as one, but at the same time, my inner curmudgeon has to question the bona fides of those who claim they would go into medicine “but for the MCAT.” When my classmates tell me that these proposed changes will make the MCAT more accessible to students who otherwise wouldn’t have taken it, there is a part of me that wonders whether that is really an unalloyed good.

4) Is there another agenda at play here? (WARNING: SPECULATIVE)

Even as the debate goes on between social science upstarts and science purists, between those who think that “personality” is over- or under-represented as an admissions criterion, one could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about.

Medical schools aren’t lacking for applicants. There isn’t, to my knowledge, an epidemic of death, destruction, bad outcomes, or other horrors brought about by physicians insufficiently knowledgeable about the social sciences. I doubt that most medical school graduates are uncaring, unsympathetic, offensive brutes.

The main “problem” with medical students today, as far as I can tell, is that too few of them are willing to go into primary care careers. At least… some people see it as a problem with the students. I don’t.

There’s been a lot of attention focused on the primary care shortage over the past few years, some of it focused on delivery reform (think ACOs and PCMHs), and some of it focused on supply (e.g. the medical students). One noteworthy report authored by the American Medical Association in 2007 intimated that the primary care shortage could be solved by finding medical students who are more “service-oriented” and “altruistic,” better able to “be advocates for […] social justice,” and less “autonomous.” The report proposes including “social accountability issues” among admissions criteria.

Implicit in all of this is the assumption that the problem with the health care system, and the cause of the primary care shortage, is that we’re the wrong kinds of medical students. I’ve blogged about this report before, and why its premises and conclusions on this issue are utterly wrong; I don’t need to re-hash this here.

I can’t help but wonder how much of this line of thinking went into the recommended MCAT changes. No one — not the AAMC, not the many commentators whose responses I’ve read — has explicitly made this connection. But the rhetoric is the same. The implicit assumptions seem to be the same. The same misguided goals via the same misguided methods.

I hope I’m reading too much into things, but if not I can only despair at the solutions that organized medicine has found for our problems.

Heckuva cartel, eh?

AMSA Follies: By Reader Demand

May 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I was originally going to abandon any effort to post the remainder of my coverage of the American Medical Students Association’s 2011 annual convention when it become clear that it would be so delayed that it could hardly be considered topical. A small number of readers have encouraged me to post the highlight anyways, using the arguments: better late than never; the events left to be blogged were the most interesting; and finally, I may as well “complete the chronicle.”

Below the cut, for those interested in how health policy was presented at the AMSA convention, are highlights from two events: a debate between Michael Cannon (Cato Institute) and Robert Zarr (American Academy of Pediatrics, Physicians for a National Health Plan); and a later event featuring Walter Tsou (immediate past president, PNHP).

Read more…

AMSA Follies: The Duck Pond

March 12, 2011 3 comments

Q: What’s bipedal, featherless, and quacks like a duck?

Quack! Quack! Quack!

A: The quacks representatives of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges.

That’s right… AMSA sold them a booth at the 2011 convention, to say nothing of the smattering of naturopathic students in attendance as participants.

AMSA won’t quite take pharm money (more on that tomorrow), but they have no problem selling out to pseudoscience (that term is far too generous).

I went up to the booth and feigned ignorance as to what naturopathy is. I was told that they are “primary care physicians” who treat the “whole patient in a holistic way.” I pushed harder and harder, and for the longest time they continued to maintain that they’re “just like MD physicians.” Finally, one of their reps cracked, and poured forth the litany of quackery to which they subscribe: homeopathy, herbalism, acupuncture, therapeutic touch, and all sorts of other nonsense.

Fortunately, their written materials were more straightforward about their quackishness, though there were also some materials to recruit MD students for “integrative medicine” training at Bastyr University in the Pacific Northwest (of course). Too bad they’re competing with AMSA’s own summer pseudoscience academy, whose flyers I also picked up.


For an organization that professes to support evidence-based medicine in other realms, and that ostensibly represents those students who are training to become applied scientists, this is really sad. The political gripes I might have with AMSA are one thing, but legitimizing quackery of this sort is truly beyond the pale. A poll of an unrepresentative convenience sample indicated that this is a non-partisan issue. “Open-mindedness” and “tolerance” are great, but when it comes to practices that don’t work, that mislead patients and that cast a pall on scientific medicine, organized medicine (AMSA included!) shouldn’t hesitate to take a stand.

If AMSA could be a forceful voice against pseudoscience much as they are a forceful voice for a variety of health policies with much less evidentiary support, they would be doing medicine, science, and patients a great service indeed.


I almost forgot, at the other end of the exhibition hall was the ayurvedic quack booth. I hope these pictures speak for themselves.






AMSA Follies: What’s With the White Coats?

March 10, 2011 Leave a comment


  1. The amount of bling/flair/showy shoulder patches/embroidered names and insignia on medical student white coats seem to be inversely correlated with the schools’ ranks. The osteopathic students’ coats are really pimped out. Harvard’s, on the other hand, are some of the dingiest and unremarkable around. Before anyone jumps down my throat, this is an observation, not a judgment.

  3. This is a judgment: why do so many students’ white coats (especially the DO schools) feature the embroidered label “student doctor” or “student physician.” I find that sort of thing to be borderline-misleading… it would definitely be considered a moderately unprofessional representation to make at SUMS. Can we all agree to cut it out? Thanks!