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A front-page story on the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, here in Manhattan, recently added to the discussion on what it takes to become a doctor in 2010. The school runs a special track for non-science majors who apply relatively early in their undergraduate years. Mount Sinai doesn’t require that they take MCATs or the usual set of premedical science courses – some college math, physics, biology, chemistry and organic chemistry – before admission.

The idea of the program is two-fold: first, that the traditional med school requirements are a turn-off, or barrier, to some young people who might, otherwise, go on to become fine doctors; second, that a liberal arts education makes for better, communicative physicians and, based on the numbers published in a new article, a greater proportion who choose primary care.

Today Orac, a popular but anonymous physician-scientist blogger, considers the issue in a very long post. His view, as I understand it, is that if doctors don’t know enough science they’ll be vulnerable to misinformation and even quackery.

On the side of the spectrum, perhaps, Dr. Pauline Chen, a surgeon who puts her name on her blog and essays. In a January column, “Do You Have the Right Stuff to Be a Doctor?” she challenged the relevance of most medical schools’ entry requirements.

I see merit on both sides:

It seems fine, even good, for some students to enter medical school with backgrounds in the humanities. Knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, art history, anthropology and pretty much any other field can enhance a doctor’s capability to relate to people coming from other backgrounds, to recognize and describe nonparametric patterns and, perhaps, deliver care. Strong writing and verbal skills can help a doctor be effective in teaching, get grants and publish papers and, first and foremost, communicate well with patients and colleagues.

Still, there’s value in a doctor’s having a demonstrated aptitude in math and science. Without the capacity to think critically in math and science, physicians may not really understand the potential benefits and limitations of new medical findings. What’s more, doctors should grasp numbers and speak statistics well enough so they can explain what often seems like jumbled jargon to a patient who’s about to make an important decision.

Thinking back on my years in medical school, residency, fellowship, research years and practice in hematology and oncology, I can’t honestly say that the general biology course I took – which included a semester’s worth of arcane plant and animal taxonomy – had much value in terms of my academic success or in being a good doctor. Chemistry and organic chemistry were probably necessary to some degree. Multivariable calculus and linear algebra turned out to be far less important than what I learned, later on my own, about statistics. As for physics and those unmappable s, p, d and f orbitals whereabout electrons zoom, I have no idea how those fit in.

What I do think is relevant was an advanced cell biology course I took during my senior year.  That, along with a tough, accompanying lab requirement, gave me what was a cutting-edge, 1981 view of gene transcription and the cell’s molecular machinery. Back then I took philosophy courses on ethical issues including autonomy – those, too, proved relevant in my med school years and later, as a practicing physician. If I could do it again, now, I’d prepare myself with courses (and labs) in molecular biology, modern genetics, and college-level statistics.

My (always-tentative) conclusions:

1. We need doctors who are well-educated, and gifted, in the humanities and sciences. But for more of the best and brightest college students to choose medicine, we (our society) should make the career path more attractive – in terms of lifestyle, and finances.

(To achieve this, we should have salaried physicians who do not incur debt while in school, ~European-style, and who work in a system with reasonable provisions for maternity leave, medical absences, vacation, etc. – but this is a large subject beyond the scope of this post.)

2. There may not be one cookie-cutter “best” when it comes to premedical education. Rather, the requirements for med school should be flexible and, perhaps, should depend on the student’s ultimate goals. It may be, for instance, that the ideal pre-med fund of knowledge of a would-be psychiatrist differs from that of a future orthopedist or oncologist.

3. We shouldn’t cut corners or standards in medical education to save money. As scientific knowledge has exploded so dramatically in the past 30 years or so, there’s more for students to learn, not less. Three years of med school isn’t sufficient, even and especially for training primary care physicians who need be familiar with many aspects of health care. If admission requirements are flexible, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be lax.

Critical thinking is an essential skill for a good doctor in any field. But that kind of learning starts early and, ideally, long before a young person applies to college. To get that right, we need to go back to basics in elementary and high school education. If students enter college with “the right stuff,” they’ll have a better understanding of health-related topics whether they choose a career in medicine, or just go to visit the doctor with some reasonable questions in hand.

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