23 December 2007

What to do if you do not get accepted into medical school

Let’s say that you have submitted your application and it’s late in the year. You have received no invitations for interview and since it’s now April, your chances of getting invited for interview and gaining acceptance are getting slimmer and slimmer. What are you going to do now? Since the day that you entered undergraduate studies, you have contemplated the study of medicine but at this point, it’s looking like you are not going to be a member of the upcoming year’s starting medical classes. What are you going to do?

Your current application
The first thing that you need to do is pull out a copy of your current application and take a long and objective look at it. Was your personal statement well-written and an accurate reflection of your goals in medicine? Did you illustrate strong extracurricular activities that showed your interest in your fellow humans? Was your undergraduate GPA competitive within the context of the schools that you applied to? Were your scores on the Medical College Admissions Test competitive within the context of the schools that you applied to?

What can you do about improving your application?
If you contemplate reapplying for next year, the first thing that you have to do is upgrade any and all things that were a liability for you in the current year. This might mean taking a course or re-taking the MCAT and making sure that your score is significantly higher. This means reworking your entire application including revamping your personal statement. If your application didn’t work for this year, it’s not likely that it is going to work for you next year. The major reason that people do not get into medical school is overestimation of their competitiveness within the context of the pool of applicants to the schools that they applied to.

The applicant pool
Every year since I have been working with medical school admissions, two things have been generally true. The undergraduate GPAs/MCAT scores of the applicant pool have been increasing and the number of application to my two schools have been increasing. We attribute the increase in the number of applicants to the generally poor economy and we attribute the increase in academic scores to both grade inflation (at some colleges ) and an increasing number of folks who use test prep companies for the MCAT. We are well versed in the undergraduate schools that practice grade inflation and we look very carefully at the patterns in the MCAT scores. Larger applicant pool and higher uGPA/MCAT scores mean that we are using much of the entire application to make our decisions as to whom we will invite for interview.

The URM myth
Both of my medical schools have about 1% URM representation in any given class. It is entirely a myth that being an Underrepresented Minority in Medicine is an automatic entry into medical school no matter what is on your application. We just don’t “hand out” seats in our freshman medical class for having a certain ethnicity. One of the prime forces for us is making sure that every student who is admitted will successfully get through four years of a very tough curriculum. The material to be mastered knows no color or ethnicity. In the past, with our admissions formula, we have been pretty fortunate in that our graduation rate in four or five years is greater than 99%. In general, those people who graduate in five rather than four years have some extenuating circumstances that have prevented them for continuing with their class not because they were not well-qualified in the first place.

Feelings that you are somehow inferior
This turns out to be a huge factor in whether or not a re-applicant will be successful on the second try. There are far more applicants than seats in medical school period. If you don’t get in, it is generally because you were not a good “fit” for the year in which you applied or you made some poor decisions in terms of the schools that you applied to again you were not a good “fit”. You can reassess you situation, change the things on your application that you can change and reapply stronger. There is very little difference in a student who is accepted and a student who is not accepted in any given year. You would be quite surprised to learn how close many “rejected” students actually came to an acceptance. Those folks who are wait-listed were definite acceptances but were a bit further down the list in terms of being offered a seat. They are definitly “alternates” but we just felt more strongly about the people who were offered admission.

Graduate school
In general, if you are NOT interested in graduate school, don’t undertake a graduate degree to enhance your application. If you have developed a passionate interest in Public Health or Business and you can complete your degree in one year or so, then obtain an MPH or an MBA but don’t look to these degrees to make you more competitive for medical school if your uGPA/MCAT was low.

If you elect to enter a Special Masters such as the Special Masters in Physiology (offered at many colleges/university), you can definitely enhance your chances of admission if you perform well in this type of a program. In addition, you will have some graduate training that can be used if you don’t enter medical school. These Special Masters generally have you taking the same coursework as medical students and can show that you are capable of handling a tough medical school curriculum. These programs are ideal for candidates who are just a bit below average (3.2-3.5) uGPA range or those who had a great deal of difficulty with the MCAT but higher uGPAs.

Retaking the MCAT
If you scored below that magic “30″ or had a severly lopsided score say 13 in PS, 12 in BS and a 5 in VR, then retaking that exam with solid preparation and remediation in your lower scoring areas might be a good idea. One of the things to consider is that you must shore up your deficiencs and be sure that you have done something major before you re-take this exam. Nothing can tank your application faster than several mediocre MCAT scores. While some schools will take your higher scores at each re-take and use a composite, most schools (includng mine) do NOT do this. If you retake, make sure that you are going to score higher period. Also remember that most people do not accomplish a higher score so you definitely need to do something different in terms of prep in order not to wind up with a lower score.

It is definitely true that the earlier you apply, the better your chances. Meet and exceed every deadline and in the case of reapplication, be early period. You can’t procrastinate on this one. As soon as you have decided to reapply, start getting your materials together for an early submission of your application. Most of the time, the difference between waitlist and acceptance is the timing of the application. Resolve that you are going to be proactive about getting your application done and that you are going to upgrade everything that you can upgrade within the time frame that you have between application cycles (this is not an infinite amount of time)

Reapplication time is also a good time to explore other career opportunities outside medicine especially if you are well below the averages for accepted students. One has to be realistic about their chances of acceptance if you are sitting on a uGPA of 2.9 or an MCAT score of less than 28. Sure some students in the past have gotten into some schools with those scores but most applicants with these numbers are automatically “screened out” of may medical schools. The other thing is that everyone is NOT going to become a physician no matter how great the desire. There are just too many applicants for seats.

Also do not make the mistake of thinking that you will become a Physician Assistant or enter Nursing as a substitute for medicine. While these are great careers, they are not the “same” as medicine. These careers can be extremely rewarding and satisfying but enter these careers because you have decided that they are a good “fit” for you and that you will enjoy them. Getting into Physician Assistant school is quite competitive and not a stepping stone into medicine. It is far likely that if you were not competitive for medical school, you are not going to be competitive for PA school.

Above all, if medicine is your dream, you will do whatever it takes to accomplish it but you need to be sure that you are upgrading your application with each reapp and that you are being realistic in terms of you competitiveness. Just reapplying does not increase your chances of acceptance in itself. Most people who reapply do something significant to upgrade their application. Make sure that if you elect to reapply, you do the upgrade.

14 December 2007

A Memorable Patient

I have been thinking about some of my more memorable patients these days. I especially remember one of my younger surgical patients from when I was a junior resident. I was on the Colo-Rectal surgical service, which was one of the more interesting rotations that you can have a resident. Colo-rectal surgeons handle just that, diseases of the colon and rectum that have to be treated surgically. One of the nice things about the service is that the colo-rectal attendings were among the most personable and knowledgeable of my junior years. They loved to teach and they loved to have us involved in their cases at every step.

One day, a gentleman presented to clinic for the final scheduling of his upcoming surgery. He was a young man (less than age 40) with a very low rectal tumor that we knew was cancerous. His presentation had been rectal bleeding and when his primary care physician found the tumor (it was palpable on digital rectal exam), he immediately referred the gentleman to our clinic for workup and surgery. At this point, the workup was complete: CT Scan, blood work and chest film. We reviewed everything and the patient was scheduled for AM admission, given pre-op orders and sent home to report back to the hospital two days later.

Two days later, we greeted the patient and his wonderful wife in the holding area. They had followed the prep instructions to the letter and he was cleared by anesthesia for the case that we would be doing. We had planned an abdominoperineal resection which involves wide excision of the rectum to include the lateral attachments and pelvic attachements and the creation of a colostomy. In the performance of this procedure, abdomen is opened and examined to see the extent of spread of the disease if any. Since we had a CT Scan that was two weeks old, that showed no evidence of spread of disease to other organs, we were confident that we would be able to remove the tumor, fashion a colostomy and get this patient on to recovery.

To have a colostomy at such a young age is life changing but to die of rectal cancer would be a tragedy and thus the patient was eager to get the surgery over with and get on with chemo and his recovery. He had been very eager to learn about colostomy care and life with this procedure. We open the abdomen and to our shock, the cancer had spread to his liver. As I moved my hand over the liver, the extent of the numerous tumors was quite evident. We all scanned the CT to see if we had missed something but we had not and neither had radiology. The tumor did not show on the CT Scan.

At this point, I helped my chief resident close the abdomen while our attending went to deliver the devastating news to this patient's wife. The cancer was unresectable and the patient had little chance of living more than a few months with the extensive liver involvement. The next day, we ordered another CT Scan and sure enough, there were multiple tumors throughout the liver in addition to the tumor in the rectum which really hadn't changed much in size.

The next two days, I rounded on this patient and wrote notes. I made sure that his pain was under control and I met many of his relatives who were just wonderful and very grateful for everything that we had done for the patient. I felt horrible because we all wanted to do more but there wasn't anything more that could be done from a surgical standpoint. On post op day 3, the patient was ready for discharge from the hospital. He was scheduled to see a wonderful oncologist and the possibility of enrollment in an experimental protocol was there but still, it was difficult to see this situation.

A week later, the patient came back to clinic for removal of his surgical clips. His incision was well healed and he joked about the small shave prep that had been performed. His lovely wife said that every day she had with her husband was a gift because he had been badly injured in an accident three years earlier and given little chance of survival but he did. She said that she was so happy to take him home and that he was a well-loved man.

I heard that this patient died peacefully at home six months after the surgery. His wife sent us an obit notice and wanted us to see that she had directed all donations go to the American Cancer Society. She thanked us again for the great care and the time that she had with her husband. Those words stung then and they still sting as I think of that lovely family from time to time.

It is always patients like this patient that remind me to give my best always. We don't know if we will be the last physician or the physician that will make an impact on our patients. This patient gave me so much by just putting his trust in our team. I see him often when I have to deliver bad news to a family or to a patient and I hope that he is at peace. His wife said that his death was peaceful and that his 10-year-old child was with him as was his mother and father. I can only hope that all of my patients can leave behind their disease in peace when the time comes. I am certain that the oncologist made sure that he was pain free as much as possible.

It's this time of year when I think of some of my more memorable patients. The ones who show me how to live by being a great example with their lives. I am a very fortunate physician.