28 December 2008


I remember doing a case with one of my favorite attendings. This person was a colo-rectal surgeon who would talk through out the case. I was an intern at the time but I remember him saying that his talking was just “venting” and that he hoped it wouldn’t bother me. I looked at him with amazement because his “venting” was putting to word, many of the thoughts that I was having as we went through the case. I had felt honored to be able to scrub this case with him because usually, one of the chief residents would have taken this case but everyone was tied up and thus I asked if he would mind if I scrubbed with him. He said that he was happy to have me there.

The Teaching

He explained the fine technical points from skin to skin allowing me to mirror many of the things that he was doing. He pointed out anatomy and explained why he loved mobilizing the rectum and why colo-rectal surgery was always a rush for him. I was mesmerized by how fascinating going through this case was. In short, I was being treated to the first of many one-on-one mentor-trainee sessions with this young colo-rectal surgeon. His enthusiasm for his craft and his ability to teach me what he found amazing was delightful. From that point on, I always held a special reverence for colo-rectal surgery.

He marked out the incision line for me and handed me the scalpel. He showed me how to make sure I had just the proper amount of tension and counter tension as we entered the abdominal cavity. He showed me how to explore the abdominal cavity and how to palpate the liver for cancer mets. He pointed out the fine points of living anatomy as we located the tumor that we knew we would be able to resect.

His next lesson was how to put two ends of bowel together. Today, he said, we would do a hand-sewn anastomosis. Sure the stapler is nice to use but once in a while, a hand sewn anastomosis is a good thing to do. He showed me how to resect the section of colon leaving plenty of margin and the fine technique of location the numerous vessels that fed this wonderful organ. Again, the living anatomy is a wonder to behold and being able to see how this tumor would be removed was great.

We carefully sewed the remaining ends of the colon together using Lembert stitching. He talked, he vented and I watched and listened. Together we completed the case and at that moment, I understood why operating on the colon is both fun and something of a challenge. I had to always keep the anatomy in mind, the technique perfect and move in an efficient manner. I remember laughing at him describing the “big honking vessels” that we would be ligating and why one doesn’t want to even think about ties not holding. He said that when he started residency, he would lose sleep over thinking that his ties were not secure.


One of the great things about doing a case with an attending like my colo-rectal professor is that he does vent the things that go over and over in my mind. Are my ties secure with every knot? Are my hands going in the right direction? Have I identified the vessels correctly and ligated them using proper technique? After all, surgery is a practice which has to take place over and over for years. Even now, year’s later, when I don’t have to think about every suture or every tie, I still mentally revisit some of the cases that were turning points in my training for various reasons.

There isn’t anything magical about surgical technique but there is something magical about having the knowledge, background and education to use that technique properly. This is what I learned across the table from my colo-rectal professor. He vented and I listened to all of those pearls that he would verbalize. For me, his venting was golden and some of the best teaching that I ever encountered. He was an extraordinary teacher and he would often tell us that if he was in our position, his venting would drive him crazy. Well, that was never the case for me. His venting made me see the artistry of colo-rectal surgery and why having impeccable technique was paramount for these patients.

The best teaching

It’s no accident that the lessons that I remember best came from my first two years of surgery. By the time one reaches third year, there is a comfort level with being in the operating room. The lessons of my first two years were magical and have not left me. Those late night cases with the chief residents, moving through the abdominal cavity on a laparoscopic case or the first time I was able to close the abdominal cavity and feel confident that I had done this correctly, were memorable for me.

I was fortunate to be exposed to some of the greatest professors of surgery under a variety of circumstances in addition to having some of the best chief residents who were willing to give me their best too. There is much joy in this type of learning and a great amount of joy in venting.

23 November 2008

Getting Through the Semester (or what if I fail something).

“The Thrill of Victory or the Agony of Defeat”

The Drama of Human Competition as the opening lines of ABCs “Wide World of Sports” promised. By now, many students have had their first blocks of exams in medical school. Some people have done very well and some people have “breathed a sigh of relief” that they passed and some people have not passed one or or more of their exams. To fail an exam at this stage can be a huge personal blow but your actions after discovering that you have not passed (I am going to avoid the word “failure” here) are critical to figuring out what you need to do to get “above the yellow line”. Sure you NEED to do a bit or mourning in terms of the loss of those wonderful feelings that infused during orientation week but don’t let the mourning phase go on longer than a couple of minutes. Replace mourning with a very objective strategical look at what might have gone wrong and how you are going to fix the situation.

There is something in medical school that will throw every person. It may be that first round of exams, that USMLE score or a patient contact that just did go well. The important thing is that out of every experience, good or bad, you learn something about yourself and what you are capable of achieving. It is out of experience that you will learn to treat your future patients so let your experience become your teacher and move forward from here. Not passing an exam just doesn’t feel good and can play with your “head” in terms of how your look at your future. My point here is that nothing except that round of exams is over at this point. You mourn a bit and then you push forward because (and I am not wrong on this), the material for the next round of exams is already upon you.

As soon as you know that anything has not gone well for you academically, ask for help. Your first action should be reviewing the test and trying to figure out where you went wrong. Do you need to rely on more detail? Did you move too fast and not answer the question that was asked? Did you neglect to read every answer choice with a more correct answer further down? Did you not fully understand the material? Were you distracted by something outside of school such as a relationship or illness and not put in enough time studying? In short, try to figure out what went wrong and take steps to make sure that you don’t repeat your mistakes.

What if I fail a whole course, like Biochemistry?

The consequences of failing an entire course in medical school are largely school-dependent. Some schools will want you to retake only the material that you did not pass while others will have you go through an entire summer remediation course. In any event, look at your remediation/retesting as an opportunity to hone this material well. You definitely want a strong knowledge base for your upcoming classes and you will have made some steps toward review in terms of preparation for USMLE. In this light, having to retake or remediate is not totally the worst situation that you can find yourself going through.

Plunge into your review with total concentration on the subject at hand. If you have one course or one area of subject matter, this is easier than if you have multiple subjects to remediate. Your only resolve in this situation is to not miss this golden opportunity to thoroughly master this material. You are not a “lesser person” because you need a second review and keep in mind, that you are reviewing at this point. In most cases, you have learned the material on the first shot but this review gives you insight into the material that you likely previously missed.

I am always more concerned about those students who “barely” passed than the students who failed and are re-mediating. In most cases, the student who re-mediates does not carry a knowledge gap forward while the student who barely passed likely has gaps in their knowledge base. It is those who barely pass that will need the most intensive review and preparation for board examinations. I always encourage students who scored below an 80% to study for and take any optional shelf subject exams if offered by their school. These shelf exams can pinpoint knowledge gaps that can be filled in before taking Step I.

Class Attendance - Is this time well spent for me?

In some medical schools, class attendance is not mandatory. If this is the case, and you ran out of study time, try figuring out if there is one day a week that you can stay home and study the material using note service/lecture tapes or vids/textbook and syllabus reading. Many students do not attend class and find that home (or away from school study) works best for them. This may work for you but be careful if you have too many distractions at home or find that not attending class puts you behind. (Getting behind in medical school is deadly.)
If your work is not detailed enough, figure out which classes do not require the detail and which ones DO require more detailed study. In short, give each course what it demands. Many schools have integrated courses that definitely demand loads of detailed work coupled with “professional-type” courses like Practice of Medicine that are more performance-based. Try to look at your coursework from this perspective and see if you can give your integrated course a bit more time and your performance course a bit less time.

Another problem is that in many first year courses, the load of information can seem overwhelming. Resist the urge to dwell on what seems overwhelming and nibble away a chunk at a time. I always remember that scene in the movie “Shawshank Redemption” where the protagonist chips away at the prison wall over the course of 17 years with a small rock hammer. Eventually, he gets through the wall and escapes. Extreme but I think you get my drift in terms of divide your work into manageable chunks and stay on course. Keep moving forward because you can only affect what is happening now and use that to impact the future. Weekends are your friend because you can breathe a bit, relax a bit and catch up if you have fallen a bit behind your class. In the middle of the week, go to where the class is and use the weekend to “catch up”.

Wasting time and less efficient practices

I discourage students from recopying notes as a means of study. When you have volumes of material and information, you can become more of an excellent clerk in terms of producing a beautiful set of notes that you have not mastered.

Organizing your material is good (can be done with a highlighter or in the margins of your notebook) but total recopying of every word may be too time consuming and not as beneficial as when you were an undergraduate student with less volume. You may need to review the material and then constantly question yourself or recite the material back to yourself rather than a complete recopy. If you can recopy your work in an efficient manner while learning and your grades are good, then recopying is working for you and don’t change your strategy.

Another problem that can interfere with some freshman medical students is feeling that they “need” to study for boards. You don’t need to take time away from your coursework mastery to do board study at this point in your career. If you absolutely feel that you NEED to do some board study, then do it during the summer between your first and second year but the best preparation for boards is to thoroughly master your coursework and then study for boards at the end of your second year. You cannot “review” what you have not “learned” in the first place. Don’t take valuable coursework study time to do board study.

Board review books are most useful because they summarize material but most medical school courses require the details and not summaries. Beware of the “I am going to use a review book to summarize” method of study because it might work against you in terms of you not getting enough of the details to pass your course. The other extreme is to attempt to memorize the textbook which is most likely too much detail. In short, strike a happy medium that will work for you.

Don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to consult your instructor or your dean if you are struggling. Not to reach out for help (especially because of the amount of money that you are paying for your school tuition) is not wise. It really looks great to a residency program director to see comments from your dean or professor that state that you were able to overcome a deficiency and excel. These types of comments indicate excellent problem-solving skills which are highly prized in a physician.

Finally, tune out the boasting of your classmates who say that they “didn’t study” and “aced” their exams. They are lying period. You have to do what you NEED to do for yourself. Congratulate them for being so “brilliant” and don’t waste a second of your precious time worrying that you are somehow deficient because you studied like a demon and didn’t do so well. There is nothing wrong with you that correcting your study strategy will not solve. Just don’t add “questioning your worth” to your list of things to overcome. It isn’t necessary and it won’t get the job done.

Striking a Balance

Finally, one key aspect of medical school, residency and the eventual practice of medicine is that you will have to constantly “strike a balance” between study, personal life and professional obligations. The first semester of medical school will definitely test your resolve to keep working away at your studies until you get them mastered but this should not be at the cost of your personal integrity or sanity. Try to find ways of incorporating some stress relief (physical exercise) and socialization (away from your classmates) into your life. Nothing, including the practice of medicine is one-dimensional and there needs to be balance.

For example, if you are studying in the library and know that you won’t make it to the gym, try to walk up at least 8 floors of steps on the days that you don’t get to the gym. Take 10 minutes and take a brisk walk around the corridors to get your brain relaxed before you keep “grinding” away at your study materials. Study and pace at the same time while reciting the material to yourself in your own words. Try making some study-drill tapes and drill yourself while you are on the elliptical trainer/treadmill in the gym. Finally, picture that professor’s head when you are doing your bicep curls or on the fly machine and pound things out. You will be more relaxed, less stressed and more efficient in your studies. In addition, you can enjoy eating without worrying about gaining weight.

Statistics (and odds) state that if you were accepted to medical school, you will get through the four years successfully. Some people make the adjustment to the rigors of medical school academics faster than others but trust yourself enough to know that you will get the job done. There is very little difference in intellect between the person who graduates first in their medical school class and last in their medical school class. Residency program directors know this which is why the person who graduates last in their class is still called “Doctor”. Run your own race and get what you need.

22 November 2008

Failing Step I and how to get past this

For many second year medical students, the prospect of taking USMLE Step 1 is looming "large" on the horizon. You have completed three semesters of pre-clinical science and the first step toward licensure as a physician rapidly approaches. Along with the exam and its preparation comes the thought of what will happen if you fail this exam. Statistics show that somewhere around 1/4th of people who take this exam, will not pass on the first try. While failing this exam happens, it's better to consider that 3/4ths of the people who take this exam will pass.

So what happens if I fail?

If you fail, you generally have the option of re-taking the exam. Most medical schools in this country will have you do some remedial work and will have you sit for the exam a second time will little consequences other than damage to your ego. If you fail Step I once, you can still practice medicine and you can still graduate from medical school. You have likely knocked yourself out of the moderately competitive to competitive specialties but you can still have a very satisfying career in the less competitive specialties.

The first thing that you have to do, if you open your test score report and find that you have not passed, is immediately figure out where you were deficient. The USMLE score report comes with a breakdown of where you lost points. You should immediately start your review in your weakest subjects/items. The next thing that you want to do is speak with your Dean of Education so that you can get an idea of the time frame that you have to submit a passing score. Some schools want a passing score on Step I before you can begin third year clinical rotations and some will allow you to complete a rotation that you have started.

Don't make the grave mistake of attempting to do clinicals and study for Step I. If you failed this exam once, you need to put your entire attention into a thorough and adequate preparation for this exam. You can't afford two failing scores here and thus, drop/delay your clinical rotations until you have passed Step I. It's not going to be easy or quick it terms of preparing for a retake so don't try to rush this process. As bad as one failing score looks, two failing scores can really kill your chances for a solid residency match.

Get the idea out of your head that you "are not good at standardized tests" or "that your career in medicine" is over. You just cannot afford this type of thinking. Your whole attitude needs to be focused on the task at hand, which is, passing Step I. If you cannot focus for a couple of days, then take that time to relax but depending on your school's schedule, you likely need to get back into the study mode fairly quickly. Take some time to come to terms with your non-passing score but don't let a non-pass set you into a "tail-spin" that prevents you from doing your best on a second attempt.

The other mistake that many medical students will make is believing that because they were able to do well in their medical school coursework, they are a "cinch" to pass Step I. This is not always the case as since I have been involved in academic medicine, it's not always the students with the weaker academic records that fail but those who have a "false sense of security" because of their academic record. Make no mistake, Step I takes some preparation and review no matter how you scored in your coursework.

Another thing that you likely need to do is enlist the assistance of your Dean of Academic Affairs. There is no medical school in this country that has never had a student fail Step I. Your Dean of Academic Affairs can offer some assistance in getting your study methods on track. There may be great resources available at your school that you will be able to access since you have a failure on Step I. Be sure to find every resource (many likely free) that is available to you.

Another mistake that many students make is looking at the pass rates of a previous class and thinking that there is no way that you can fail. If the Class of 2008 has a 100% pass rate and you are the only member of the Class of 2009 that fails, that 2008 pass rate hasn't helped you much. Passing or failing Step I is a personal matter and not class (or school) dependent. Either you have prepared well and performed well or you have not. These are individual characteristics and not school characteristics.

What kind of residency can I get with a failure on Step I?

If you pass on the second try, score some solid performances in your clinical rotations and perform well on Step II, you have a shot at a very good residency. No, you are likely not going to match into Derm, Ortho, Rads and Ophtho but you have a shot at solid programs in just about everything else if you post a good performance in things after your failure. Sure, it's not the best situation that you have failed this very important exam but your career is not over. There is still a substantial amount of "medical school" in front of you that will provide an ample opportunity to show that a non-pass on Step I (on your first attempt) was an aberration rather than a characteristic of how you perform. Some options may not be there for you but more options exist than you would believe. You simply have to get this behind you and move on with what you have left.

Getting and keeping your head together

Again, your first priority is to do whatever you need to do to pass this exam. You cannot afford to wallow in blame but need to gather your reserves and get busy. Sure, it seems like everyone you know passed without difficulty but you didn't pass and you have to pass this exam. The thing "is what it is". The reality is that while this hurts; it's not fatal. You can take this opportunity to learn what kind of reserve you have and how to thrive in adversity. These are characteristics that any residency program director would be happy to have in an incoming resident. Get your thinking together; enlist the help of your Deans and get this exam behind you. Performance on one license exam does not define your entire medical career unless you allow this performance to define your and your career. Sure, it's important but in terms of percentages, most people pass comfortably on the next try and move on to good clinical rotations and residency spots.
Final Thoughts

If you find that you failed Step I, get your resolve together to:
  • Get in contact with your academic Dean and Dean of Students.
    Find out what options are there for you to allow you to focus on getting ready for your retake.
  • Put that non-pass into perspective and behind you; what have you learned "not" to do?
  • Get the idea that your "medical career is over" and that you can't match into a good residency program out of your head.
  • Prepare efficiently and properly so that you do not find yourself failing your re-take (or any other licence step ) exam.

This is not about you as a person, physician or anything else. You simply didn't pass Step I and you resolve to prepare and pass on the retake.

03 October 2008

Playing the Waiting Game and Keeping Your Sanity


You scrambled around and made sure that every one of your writers of your letters of recommendation did their respective jobs. You started your Personal Statement early and left plenty of time for editing and corrections. You started to fill out your AMCAS application as soon as it was available and you made sure that there were no mistakes. Finally, on the first day that you could, you pushed the submit button and the “waiting game” started. You had heard that in every circumstance, early application is the best strategy for success in getting into medical school. So now, you find that it’s early summer, school is out, and you are in for the wait.

Starting the Wait

Your next hurdle is to receive word that your AMCAS is verified. This can take six weeks or more if there were no mistakes or lost transcripts and can often take much longer if things are not moving efficiently. This step has to happen and it can cause worry if things are delayed. I can tell you that, in terms of medical schools, early summer is a non-time in terms of admissions. Most of our time is spent on getting the current class underway and gearing up for the start of receipt of new applications. For us, that early lag of time between when you can submit your application and verification is vacation time, organization time and just plain much-needed down time for us in terms of application review. It is also the time when we try to put the finishing touches on the class that is set for the new year.

The best strategy for you at this period is to make a folder for each school that you have applied to. In this folder, you will place copies of your personal statement, copies of any completed secondary applications one they have been received and completed and copies of any correspondence that you receive from that school. You can also put an envelop on the front of the folder with a copy of your itinerary once you have made travel plans for your interview. In any event, start making the folders and securing a safe place for them.

The next thing to do is make and Excel spreadsheet. On that sheet, you should make a book for each school that you have applied to. You will eventually log every date and every receipt of correspondence that you will receive. You columns should go something like date received, date sent, and date of school’s receipt. (Needless to say, anything that you send to a school should be sent by certified mail with receipt notification). Repository services such as Interfolio will also post dates of when they send your materials and when they were received. You definitely want to make sure that you keep your application materials and correspondence with each school very organized and safe.

Plan B

Plan B is what you will do if you are not accepted. In the business of medical school acceptance, nothing is a certainly except you won’t get accepted to a school if you don’t apply there. Acceptance, even if you have submitted an application with a 4.0 uGPA and 45 MCAT is not assured for anyone. It is wise to have a carefully though out and planned Plan B. From experience -mine and others- the more elaborate and complete your Plan B, the less chance you will have to use it. Start planning and working on you Plan B.

Financial Aid Forms

Right after you have submitted your AMCAS, you should begin and complete your FAFSA forms. You will need to obtain a financial aid transcript from every school that you have attended whether or not you received financial aid. If you are not applying for scholarship or financial aid for medical school, you can skip this step.

When you complete your FAFSA, have the results sent to every school that you have applied to. This will save you time in the long run. If you are not accepted, having your financial aid information sent is not going to make a difference one way or the other. If you are accepted late, having your financial aid information already in place can save plenty of headache when school starts.

Senior Year

If you are an undergraduate, you want to plan a strong senior year. I know that “senioritis” sets in and you are tempted to want to coast because you are done with MCAT and done with the majority of your courses but don’t do this. Take some seminar courses and expand your knowledge base or take some research courses and pick up some valuable skills. My senior year of university was spent writing and presenting my honors thesis work. This was actually great experience for me and propelled me into the world of research scholarship. Use that senior year to shore up any possible deficiencies that you might have and to finish strong.

This is also a prime time to begin a solid exercise program. My biggest regret in medical school was that I didn’t stay in good physical condition. If I had kept up with my conditioning, I would have been an even more efficient student and a student with far less stress. Take this time to start and hone a solid aerobic exercise system that you can complete in 30 minutes to 1 hour each day. It can be as simple as taking three 10-minute brisk walks or climbing a couple of floors of stairs until you work up to 14 floors daily (only up direction counts). Even today, I make sure that I do at least 14 floors up every day. I can find steps pretty easily and do a couple of floors between cases or when I need a break from my desk.

Early Fall

By this time, you should be keeping your senior coursework strong and completing all secondary applications within one week of receiving them. Another thing that you need to do is go to a professional photographer and have some professional head shots taken of you in your interview attire. You will need these for many secondary applications and you will need them later for things like USMLE application. Don’t use a cheap “Passport photo” service. These cheap services will take photos that make you look like you have been in prison. Use a professional photographer and groom yourself as if you were going for interview. That secondary application should look polished and professional. Once you have chosen a good photo from the proofs, have several passport-sized sheets made and keep these in a safe place.

Again, as soon as you complete and post a secondary, make a copy and place this in the folder for that school. It’s a good idea to make a copy of everything that pertains to each school including things from their website (names of deans of admissions, names of admission coordinators) along with dates of any phone conversations. Also place copies of any e-mails that you have received for each school.

Interview Time

Most schools spend July and August reviewing applications and interviewing Early Decision applicants. You can expect to receive notification that you are complete but not much more information from your schools. Early Decision applicants have to be notified by September 1 so their applications are processed first. After the first couple of weeks of September, some of the earliest regular applicants may be notified of acceptance by some schools. If you receive a notification of invitation to interview at this time, this is great but don’t read anything into not receiving an invitation to interview. At this point, it is way early and you should be either working on Plan B or working diligently on your coursework. In short, don’t start obsessing about timing.

Many schools will not even begin interview session until late October and early November. Again, if you applied in early June, it will have been a long time. Don’t get crazy and don’t begin to call schools. If you have received a “complete” notice, then you wait. Find something else to do. If you have an interview notification, then work on your travel plans and logistics. Elsewhere on this blog, you will find posts about traveling to interview.

If you haven’t heard from any school by the end of October, consider applying to more schools. If you were in the very early applicants, you may need to broaden the number of schools that you have applied to. A major mistake that many applicants make is overestimating their competitiveness for medical school. If you are not securely above the averages for matriculants (uGPA 3.65 and MCAT 31) then you likely need to add more schools. If you are above those averages, you can hold but you probably should have head from schools by now. If not, make sure that your application materials have arrived.

Holiday Time

You applied early and haven’t received any interview notifications. Yes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being depressed but this is the time to plunge into the holidays and not get insane. Yes, I know that it’s only your future here but you cannot do anything more at this point. I will repeat in all caps for emphasis, YOU CANNOT DO ANYTHING MORE AT THIS POINT. If your application is complete then you have to wait. It’s a good time to plan your trip home for the holidays and take a breather from coursework.

January and February

These are very heavy interview months. You may find that the interview invitations will roll in at this time. Again, there is still plenty of time to receive an interview and receive an acceptance. This is also a time when many of the early interviewers will begin to receive acceptances. If you have done a couple of interviews but received no acceptance, don’t panic here either. Again, work on and finalize your Plan B.

If you are a dedicated reader of The Student Doctor Network, don’t obsess over the fact that others have been accepted but you are still waiting. Timing is out of your control and dependent on things like the number of applications received by the schools that you have applied to and the competitiveness of those applications. The only thing that you can do at this point is WAIT (dread).

March and April

By the beginning of April, some folks will find themselves on wait lists and without an acceptance. This is not entirely a bad situation though you may want to make a decision as to whether you will begin to collect the things you need for reapplication. If you need to do things like re-take the MCAT, you need to have gotten started on your study and planning for the test. You can’t wait too late and you can’t do a re-take without some significant review and preparation. The worst thing that you can do is post an MCAT retake with a mediocre score.

If you are on a wait list, remember that there is a huge wait list movement on and after May 15th. May 15th is the date when people cannot hold multiple acceptances. I always advise folks to release acceptances as soon as they have either been accepted by their first choice or when they have made the decision as to where they want to attend. I released my acceptances by the third week of February because I had made my decision. I am sure that five people were grateful that I did that because they were able to get in that year.

May and later

In general, after May 15th, you are not likely going to gain acceptance. There are exceptions, especially the schools with rolling admissions but by this time, you should either have an acceptance or gathered your materials for reapplication. You can look at my previous post on when to give up on application to medical school but if you don’t have an acceptance by now, you likely need to take an objective look at your competitiveness and do some application upgrading.

If you need more coursework, this is a good time to get registered for post bacc work. If you are planning to enter a SMP (Special Masters Program), then you need to get busy fast. These SMP programs have deadlines too. In short, these may become your new Plan B and you need to get to work. If you are on a waitlist at this point, it will not hurt you to go ahead and plan on reapplying. Sure, you will lose the money of submitting your application but if you are not accepted off of a wait list, you will be happy that you reapplied early.

If you reapply, change everything that you can change about your application. Do not apply to the same schools with the same application materials. We do compare old and new applications. If you were unsuccessful and submit the same unsuccessful application materials, you are most likely not going to be successful next year either. The average matriculant uGPA and MCAT scores have always gone up. Also, unless a school tells you that you need more extracurricular activity, you likely don’t need to add more here either.


You may want to look into the following:

1. Getting the services of a professional pre-med counselor. For nontraditional applicants who have been unsuccessful, this is money that will be well spent.

2. Taking more undergraduate coursework to raise your uGPA. If you are significantly below 3.5, you likely need a year or two of more coursework.
If you have an MCAT score below 28, you need a re-take period if you are applying to allopathic medical schools.

3. Making sure that you have applied to a wide range of schools. If you only applied to schools in the Northeast, you may want to go out of that region. You need a minimum of 10 schools if your are a strong applicant and 15 to 20 if you are less than competitive.

4. Don’t thumb your nose at osteopathic medical schools. If you are under the averages for allopathic but your uGPA is above 3.2 and MCAT above 27 but less than 30, you stand a good shot at osteopathic medicine. If you get into osteopathic medical school, you can have the same career as attending allopathic medical school. If you want to be a physician, they are definitely the way to go.

26 July 2008

Medicine From The Trenches

18 July 2008

Why I chose Surgery (Part 1 and Part 2)

Part I (an earlier post)
I can vividly remember starting my third year of medical school. My school chose our third-year schedules for us and I remember some of the angst of my fellow classmates when our schedules were posted during the summer between our second and third years. I was in the midst of a wonderful Pathology fellowship that I had received for scoring very high in my Pathology course. I was assigned to various Medical Examiners offices and to the Pathology Departments of a couple of very large teaching hospitals. I had been spending the summer doing everything from crime scene investigation to transfusion medicine to bone marrow transplant. It had been a great summer. I was very strongly considering Pathology and Transfusion Medicine as my specialty.

I stopped by my Dean of Academic Affairs office and was told to wait for my USMLE Step I scores. The school had received them before I had received them. I took a deep breath because I really hadn't prepared myself for facing the prospect that I might have failed that test. I sat in a chair outside the Dean's inner office and ran a couple of scenarios as to what I would do if I had failed. I would quickly sign up for a retest and I would only miss one rotation at the start of third year. Since I was doing Pathology, I could study in between cases and get my preceptors to help me with covering the material.

The Dean came out and handed me a sheet of paper. I had to just sit there in disbelief. Not only had I passed, I had done extremely well. I was on my way. It was hard to hold back the tears of joy because I had studied about two and a half weeks for Step I. My fellowship had the requirement that I take Step I by the second week in May and my last exam from second year was on April 28th. I would be starting third year and I would be starting third year on Pediatrics with one of my best friends as my rotation partner. Life was good... I found out later that two people from my class did not pass USMLE Step I. It was very sad because one girl ran down the hall screaming and sobbing when she received her score. That put loads of people on edge.

I started third year on Pediatrics. It was a good rotation and I received Honors. I really enjoyed taking care of patients and I was very popular with the residents because I could place IVs and draw blood. I had also spent loads of time with an excellent pediatric pathologist so I knew my congenital defects inside and out. I could interpret cath reports and I was quite comfortable in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. I had been a Pediatric-Perinatal Respiratory Therapist before starting medical school so the interns found me quite useful.

My second rotation was Psychiatry. This was one of my best required clerkships. I knew that I wasn't going into Psychiatry (you know these things early) so I was free to enjoy the rotation and pick up anything that I could. My preceptor was an excellent Consultation-Liaison Psychiatrist who exposed us to everything from the wards for the criminally insane to hard-core substance abusers to schizophrenics and other stuff. I earned another Honors grade and got some excellent experience. I learned above all that I was not crazy, my friends are not crazy because I spent loads of "quality time" around people who were genuine crazy.

My third rotation was Family Medicine. I had a great preceptor who even delivered babies. This rotatations was entirely office based but I learned to do prenatal exams and care for entire families. I also learned how and when to refer which is great stuff to know. My preceptor was extremely brainy and "pimped" me on just about everything. Turns out this was a good test for USMLE Step II because we either discussed or I had to report on most everything in Family Medicine that was on the shelf exam or on USMLE Step II. I received Honors for this rotation but decided that I really did not enjoy being out of the hospital too often. I also did not enjoy the slow pace of the office.

Holiday break came and I was happy to be done with shelf exams and rotations for five weeks. I knew that Surgery was coming up and my friends had warned me to be ready for two months of pure hell. The rotation is designed so that you spend your first month on General Surgery on one of two services: Trauma or General Surgery. I drew Trauma out of the hat and I received the condolences of my classmates. I figured, "you can do anything that you want with me but you can't stop that clock." No matter how bad, in four weeks, it would be over.

I was hooked on Surgery from my first case. It was a total colectomy with four females operating. My chief resident was female, the junior resident was female, the attending was female and I was female. We talked about shoes and Chanel suits during the case. I tied tons of knots and helped the junior resident close the incision. It was heaven. I found out that I loved Trauma and I couldn't wait to be on call every third day. I had the time of my life and I loved everything about surgery.

My next month was spent on ENT and then on Cardio-thoracic and Vascular Surgery. I scrubbed every case that was assigned to me and many cases that were assigned to some of my colleagues. I became hooked on Vascular Surgery during that rotation. I loved the detective atmosphere on Vascular and loved taking care of the patients. My chief resident on Vascular taught me some great pearls about making sure that even with an amputation, fashioning a well-constructed stump can make the difference between ambulating and not ambulating for the patient. It was great stuff.

After Surgery, I rotated through OB-Gyn. I hated everything about this specialty. This rotation became my only High Pass during third year. I just couldn't get into delivering babies and I wasn't thrilled with tubal ligations. I wasn't thrilled with spending too much time in the clinics and offices. The one bright spot was the Gyn surgeries which I excelled at. I learned the surgical anatomy like a sponge but I knew that this was not going to be the specialty for me.

I finished up on Medicine and Neurology. This would be my final sixteen weeks of third year. I was fortunate to have medicine last because this made study for USMLE Step II a snap. I totally enjoyed Medicine and Neurology but my heart was back in surgery. All of my Pathology experience really paid off because I aced these rotations and moved onto fourth year.

My faculty adviser was chairman of surgery and helped pave the way for my entry into this specialty. I was also co-president of the Surgical Society during my fourth year which also helped. My USMLE scores were good so this helped too. I had some awesome interviews and I landed at a great residency program. My experiences began there and they keep on.

As I continue to write, I will be posting more of my experiences.

Part 2 Why I chose Surgery.

As I moved through medical school, I knew that any specialty that I would enter had to have the following aspects:

Ability to have long-term relationships with patients
Ability to see every type of patient under a variety of circumstances
Practice in office, clinic, hospital, intensive care, operating room and emergency department.
Ability to handle a wide variety of clinical conditions
Ability to deal with both acute and chronic conditions
Ability to perform many procedures

The only specialty that met all of those requirements for me was Surgery. I also loved the aspect that I had to utilize my knowledge of both medicine and physiology to the surgical patient both preoperative and postoperatively. This was very appealing for me. I also utilize pathology and biochemistry to a great degree especially in my teaching of surgery and surgery practice. Again, this made surgery a very attractive specialty.

I definitely started out in residency with a strong interest in vascular surgery. Not only were the vascular surgical patients among the sickest in the hospital on any given day, I also loved seeing the immediate aspects of my work. Once you increase blood flow to an extremity that had previously been lacking blood flow, you see the immediate effects both good and bad. I also liked becoming very familiar with wound care and the healing of chronic wounds.

I had heard about the "surgical personality" and that some surgeons were very difficult to deal with but that never became a factor in my choice of specialty. I don't care if the devil himself is teaching me if the teaching is good. Fortunately for me, that was rarely the case and my knowledge base expanded exponentially with every year of training. Good teaching is good teaching and good faculty allow you to grow and learn from both them and your mistakes in a constructive manner. I also found that I could profit from the mistakes of others at time too.

The other factor that did not deter me from surgery was the horror stories that I had heard about the residency experience. Yes, sometimes I had to work long hours but those long hours yielded some of the best teaching of my life. Yes, I did miss parties and social events but that happens with any aspect of medicine and comes with the territory. Physicians often work long hours taking care of patients who are sick. If you don't like to take care of sick patients, medicine/surgery is not the career for you.

Finally, I have a very good life. I do something that is very interesting and I give my patients 100% at all times. I have encountered some physicians who were psychotic, neurotic, dishonest, unprofessional, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and just down right stupid. The interesting thing is that I am none of those things and my life is good. Good will goes out from me to my patients and it come back to me in droves. Yes, I work very hard and under extreme conditions at times but I have been blessed with an even temper and a love of my fellow humans.

If you choose a specialty, choose for what you know that you will enjoy doing in most aspects for the rest of your life. If not, you have many years of misery ahead of you. Conditions of practice will change and your income is largely based, not in how hard you work, but on what third-party payers are willing to pay for your services. If you can't deal with this aspect of your chosen profession, get out as soon as you can.

If you choose a specialty because the rest of your classmates were in awe of you, you are likely going to be very unhappy in that specialty. Specialty choice is personal and your classmates will not be entering residency or practice with you. You, and not your classmates, will be the person at 0400h who is admitting that patient with the chronic condition, thousands of medications and multiple needs. You have to love that aspect of medicine/surgery as much as you love the other aspects of medicine/surgery.

Finally, you have to be a ethical and honest person. Showing up at the church door every Sunday does not make you a moral person if you know that deep inside yourself, you couldn't be honest with yourself, your patients or your colleagues. You may not "like" everyone that you work with or work on but you have to have respect for them and give them your best. In short, you can't be having a "bad day" unless you are on vacation. If you are prone to allowing external influences to influence you internally, you are going to have a difficult time medicine/surgery.

Especially with surgery, you will find yourself multi-tasking, juggling six or seven balls at once, shifting up and shifting back on a daily basis. That's the nature of the work and the challenge of the work. If you can't do this, surgery is going to be tough for you on a regular basis. In short, I have never had a day that was strictly "routine" unless I was just teaching for the entire day.

Finally, take some time and get to know yourself and your career needs because after all, this is YOUR career. Your parents, your significant other, your classmates or anyone outside of yourself, can't make this decision for you. You have to know your competitiveness for certain specialties (forget derm if you struggled with every aspect of medical school including boards) and you have to have a good idea of how competitive you are for programs within that specialty.

Also, remember that while residency is when you will hone your skills, it is a short period out of the length of time that you will actually practice those skills. Again, I heard that surgical internship was the worst time on earth but I actually enjoyed my experiences during internship. I heard that surgical residency was the worse time on earth but it wasn't. No residency program is going to be perfect but unless you encounter dishonest or illegal activity, you can live with residency. The clock is always ticking and time passes (quickly in most cases).

Residency requires hard work and hard study. In my case, during my first two years of residency, I studied far more than at any point in medical school in addition to getting my work done. At times, I was "bone tired" but I made myself read and study (minimally for 30 minutes daily). No, I didn't get to the gym as often as I would have liked and I didn't hang out late at night (outside the hospital) but I did live pretty well and my significant other saw as much of me as he could stand anyway.

12 July 2008

You Can Go Home Again...

This is going to be one of those posts about a nice experience that I had in the last couple of weeks. A few weeks ago, I was covering for one of my colleagues who was out of town at a meeting. He asked me to stop by an outlying hospital to check on one patient that he had there. This patient was going to be hospitalized for at least another four of five days and I was happy to look in on him for my friend who would do the same for me if necessary.

The patient was out of the room having a diagnostic study completed in the radiology department. A very distinguished gentleman was patiently waiting for him to return. He sat in one of the chairs at the bedside with a magazine on counter-terrorism (spy business). The magazine immediately caught my eye as someone I had known many, many years ago, was an expert on counter-terrorism and a writer. I introduced myself and said that I was the covering physician for my colleague who was out of town. The gentleman said that he was told that I would be the covering physician and introduced himself as a relative. I told him that his loved one would be back from radiology in a couple of minutes and that I would wait.

I also mentioned my old friend who was a writer and who was a counter-terrorism expert. It turned out that this gentleman knew my friend's writings very well. Their paths had crossed many times in the past. He was also able to tell me that my friend had moved to another state from when I knew him and that I should get in touch with him. I made a note on my "rounding sheet" with my friend's name and about that time, the patient returned from radiology.

A week or so went by and my secretary asked me about the name on the rounding sheet. "Was this a new patient?" she asked. I had to laugh and tell her "goodness no" but the name of someone that I knew in my "other" life long before medical school and even before graduate school. I told her of my life before college teaching and medicine and said that I had thought about the person from time to time but had no contact. I told her of the patient's relative and she looked up my friend's phone number, leaving it on an index card on my desk.

Last Sunday, while I was finishing up some of my paperwork, I called my old friend. He was not available at that time but he returned my call about 45 minutes later. I must admit, I was very happy to hear my friend's voice. He sounded much the same but was a very nice reminder of how everything in my life has prepared me for this profession. I believe that he was surprised that I had entered medicine and surgery because they were so far away from my previous life but I am reminded of how small our word is and how much one phone call from an old friend can just be one of the nicest things to happen.

I hope my friend's life has been as rich and rewarding as mine. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't pinch myself to make sure that I am not dreaming. I really love my work and taking care of my patients. I am honored that they place their lives and health in my hands and I never find this job routine. Even something as simple as doing a favor for a friend who was out of town has brought just a little extra joy in my life and the renewing of an old friendship that I thought long past. Enjoy the little things in life as they are precious.

17 May 2008

Personal Statement 101

Writing a personal statement can be a daunting task for many people who are not familiar with the process. By definition, a personal statement is something over which, you have total control. This is your area in the application process to make sure that any evaluator has a complete understanding of your ideas. Unfortunately, many people have great difficulty with expressing their ideas in a clear and concise manner. The key here is that your ideas give a complete and clear picture of you as an individual person.

Characteristics of Well-written Documents
Any well-written document contains an introduction or presentation of a hypothesis, evidence to support that hypothesis and a conclusion. If you have clearly stated or presented your case and evidence, the conclusion should be very easy to write and should stay in the mind of the reader. Unfortunately, conceiving and writing an introduction is the most difficult portion of personal statement writing for most people.

A well-written document is easy to outline or present in outline form. This is why starting with an outline is not a bad strategy for writing any document from personal statement to term paper. Outlines should be logical and should help your ideas from from one to the next as you present your evidence or data to support your original thesis or hypothesis. Most people mistakenly place too much information in their outline which makes their document difficult to understand after it is written. Your outline should be brief and should leave plenty of room for you to "flesh out" your evidence.

A well-written document contains good grammar and word usage. If your reading and writing skills have been "dumbed down" to the state of text messaging and sound bites, you are going to have a very difficult time getting your skills back up to a standard that is acceptable for a university-educated person. Being able to understand and utilize text messaging is quite useful in today's world of electronic communication but make no mistake, trying to use the same methods of communication to a professional school admissions committee that you would use to your "chums" is not a good strategy. A better strategy is to become literate in every level of writing and communication.

Getting Started
To get around the difficulty of getting started on your personal statement, write down a list of words or phrases that describe you as an individual. You can certainly start anywhere with anything such as your "likes" and "dislikes", your favorite activities, activities that you enjoy daily or do not enjoy, or persons that have strongly influenced you. This "idea" list need not be detailed but should be as descriptive or related to you as possible.

For example, if you listed your Uncle Andy as the person who had a strong influence on you, then under a subheading, list the characteristics and you and Uncle Andy share in common. If you can't list any, then Uncle Andy did not have much of an influence on you. If Uncle Andy was the person who helped you through a difficult struggle, then list some of the specific things that Uncle Andy helped you to gain insight that helped you through your difficulties.

Do not list autobiographical data such as I was born in Las Angeles California on December 1,1983 and grew up in San Jose. I am certain that a couple of hundred folks were born in LA on that date and several million have grown up in San Jose. Those are not unique factors though growing up in San Jose may have had a profound influence on you as a person but you have to list the things about growing up in San Jose that have molded you into the person you are today.

Were there any sentinel events that shaped you interest and drive to pursue medicine as a career? Many people have gone through a life altering illness or experienced the emotions of the illness of a loved one. If you use this type of experience to weave your personal statement, you have to be sure that you carefully weave this event into your character and experience. It is your experience that you need and want to elucidate.

Take Your Time with this Document

Writing your personal statement is something that needs to take many drafts and many revisions. It's a good idea to allow a minimum of five people (who know you well) to assist you in the editing of this document. If one or two of your personal statement readers are excellent writers, then you will be fortunate indeed. Allow them to objectively critique your document and allow them to change things. It is definitely certain, than you cannot be objective when you are attempting to write about a personal issue. This is where a good editor can help you clearly express your ideas and thoughts especially if they know you well.

The last thing that you should do is send your personal statement for edit to someone who does not know you or copy a personal statement from a website or service. By sending your personal statement to a stranger, you run the risk of them plagiarizing your material. You also give up some measure of your privacy which may come back to cause problems in the future. If you copy a personal statement from another person or allow a "service" to write your personal statement, they may be writing the same statement in the same style for several people. This can leave you open to plagiarism which will "tank" your chances of getting into medical school.

Admissions committees have plenty of resources for detecting plagiarism at our disposal. Don't take the risk or leaving yourself open to this type of error. It is far better to write your own statement, in your own style than to copy anything or allow anything to be written for you that you present as your own work. While ghost writers are common in today's world of celebrity authors, if you are not a celebrity, then you should not use a ghost writer.

08 May 2008

Specialty Selection and Matching (Part II)

This post is a continuation of the previous post and will feature more aspects choosing a specialty and matching into that specialty.

How competitive are you for your chosen specialty?
Medical student love to entertain the idea that once they have graduated from School X or School Y, they are going to be sought after for by program directors across the country. This might be true if you have done extremely well in your studies and on your board exams but in general, program directors look for people who have a solid work ethic, have an interest in treating patients and have the academic ability (as evidenced by performance in medical school/board exams) that they are going to be able to master the knowledge that the specialty demands.

If you have done the “bare minimum” to get through medical school and have just above the minimum pass on your board exams, you are not going to be very competitive for high end university programs or the surgical specialties. Many of the high end university non-surgical specialty residency programs are not going to be interested in you if you have attended medical school overseas unless you have multiple publications and extremely high board scores (even in that case, Americans who have graduated from medical school in this country are likely going to have an advantage.) Every program director in this country is looking for the best potential residents out there period. It is your job, no matter what your medical school performance, to convince the program and faculty that you are well suited for them.

Along those same lines, every program that interviews you is not going to rank you. If you have applied for residency and received under 10 invitations for interview, it is likely that you are not going to match into that specialty unless you either apply to more programs and to a greater variety of programs across the board. This situation usually happens when a candidate is marginal for a particular specialty and applied to high end programs only in that specialty.

If you are again, not a particularly distinguished graduate of your medical school, apply to programs across the board (community and university affiliated). Make sure that you have received at least 10 solid interviews in those programs across the board. There is nothing wrong with applying to some “reach” programs but you need to apply to some “non-reach” programs too. On the other hand, if you have applied to 20 programs and you have 20 interviews, you can probably cancel some of your later interviews as long as you have enough programs to rank the ones that you would seriously want to be your future residency program.

Some of the things that you need to take out of the equation are the comments from your fellow medical students. Everyone “hears” things about programs but if you visited the program, had a great interview experience and feel that you loved the program, location and all vibes, then rank that program. Even though you only get to see what the program “wants” you to see on interview day, unless you felt there was something very sinister that remained hidden, your impressions about a program are generally fine.

Program Problems
Programs that have undergone a leadership change are not necessarily bad programs. Sometimes leadership changes are the “shot in the arm” that a program needs to go from good to excellent. If you happen to interview at a program that has a recent change in leadership, look carefully at the enthusiasm for training and education of the new (or interim) program director/chair. If enthusiasm is lacking, avoid the program.

Programs with a large turnover of residents are definite red flags. If you see a program were most of the people who start do not finish there, something is wrong. It may be problems with workload, administration, resident support, working atmosphere or any number of things. Be sure that you ask any program about the percentage of people who start that finish. If they change the subject or even hedge on this question, mark them in the “questionable” category.

Programs that use the resident staff as “assistants” rather than programs that are dedicated to resident education and professional advancement are also problematic. Residency is teaching and the attending staff should have some strong teaching ability. A good measure of this is how the residents conduct themselves during your interview day. They should be unhurried and available to you for questions. They should be able to answer your questions without hesitation. Make sure that you speak with a good cross section of residents at every training level especially the PGY-1s and the ones that are about to graduate from the program. Speak with the lab residents too.

Places that have very poor facilities can also be a major problem for you. Try to see where the call rooms are located and if they are private and clean. As a resident at any level, you do not want to share a call room with either medical students or other residents. As an on-call resident, you should have meals provided and a place to keep your things such as a locker. Residents are employees but they have a crucial role in the running and management of hospital patients. If the rule is that the attending calls the resident, tells them what to write and then completely manages the patient while the resident does the paperwork and discharge dictations, you are not going to have a good learning experience at that program.

Some Final Thoughts
Application for residency is NOT the same as application for medical school. Program directors know that if you have finished medical school, passed your boards without too much difficulty and have a good work ethic, you are likely going to be a good resident. You don’t have to “pad” your curriculum vitae with things like extracurricular activities and club memberships but you should have good solid interest in the specialty that you hope to enter.

You should also have a very objective assessment of your competitiveness for a particular specialty/location. If you are not competitive, research (only if it is meaningful) can help you a bit but all of the research in the country (with the exception of a Nobel Prize) will not get you into Dermatology if you are in the bottom half of your class.

Also, don’t choose a specialty because your father and grandfather expect you to be a particular specialist. If they were orthopedic surgeons and you would rather die than be in the operating room, then don’t choose orthopedic surgery. You will be miserable and you will likely become a miserable orthopedic surgeon. If you love family medicine, then carefully choose good family medicine programs that seem to be a great fit for you both program size and location.

25 March 2008

Matching and Specialties

This is likely to be a multi-part posting but I thought that I needed to start to address this topic at some point. Speciality choice can be quite difficult for many medical students because some schools never quite spend much time on how to choose a speciality. This choice can be a source of life-long misery or it can become like a marriage with deep and passionate love in the early years only to be replaced with a wonderful familiarity that is both surprising and satisfying at the same time.

The wrong way to choose a speciality is based on what you will believe will be potential income. While it's generally true that surgical specialties are better paying than primary care specialities, this is not always the case especially if you find that you just don't enjoy surgery and surgical procedures after a while. Anesthesia has become very popular in the sense that people feel that this speciality pays well and had less hours than surgery but a description of Anesthesia as "hours of boredom punctuated with seconds of sheer terror" can be pretty accurate at times. Many people find that this aspect of anesthesia far outweighs any monetary rewards.

Another wrong way to choose a specialty is by how wonderful your medical school experience was in that particular rotation. While you may have loved your residents and interns, you may have not loved the patients that you were treating. This can make for a miserable residency experience and an even more miserable practice experience.

As you rotate through your required third-year clerkships, you may want to pay close attention to the types of patient that each speciality treats. Do you enjoy a long-term relationship with your patient and handling of chronic problems? If this is the case, then family medicine and internal medicine may be of interest to you. Do you enjoy treating only female patients? This brings to mind OB-Gyn but you may find yourself drawn to internal medicine with a track in women's health.

Do you enjoy procedures? You may want to investigate the procedure-heavy specialties such as anesthesia, radiology, orthopedic surgery, ophthalmology and invasive cardiology. You might also place any of the surgical specialties in this category. Finally, do you enjoy the outpatient treatment of patients? This might lead you to emergency medicine as EM spend most of their practice time dealing with outpatient issues with a bit of trauma thrown in. Dermatology is also a specialty that has far more outpatient care than inpatient care. Psychiatry can also go into that category.

Pathology tends to appeal to individuals who love to study tissues and medical problems. Pathologists do not treat inpatients and pathologists perform few procedures other than those pathologists who subspecialize in tissue banking and transfusion medicine. If study and evaluation of tissues and medical problems are appealing to you, look into pathology.

Another way NOT to choose a speciality is by what your classmates have to say about a particular specialty. Don't be drawn into the "the smartest people in medical school go into derm so derm is the best specialty". This might not be the case for you if you don't enjoy the scope of practice of the dermatologist. While dermatology is a competitive specialty, you may not enjoy much about this speciality other than the look on your classmates faces when you announce that you want to pursue Derm.

The telly shows such as "House", "ER" and "Scrubs" have also tended to glamorize certain specialties. Do keep in mind that telly watching is for entertainment purposes. There is little reality to any of these shows no matter how compelling the characters and patient situations. These shows are written by people who are generally not in medicine with input for practitioners. These shows are written with entertainment factor built into them. Most of actual medical practice is not entertaining.

As you study through medical school years one and two, you are creating the foundation upon which you will enter your third year. It is during that third year that you will be exposed to different specialties and their patients. It's good to keep an open mind during third year. Do not feel pressured to decide upon anything if you don't have an idea of what type of specialty might be of interest.

I can tell you from experience, that I generally liked every rotation that I encountered during third year. Basically, I enjoy the practice of medicine and patient interaction. I saw plenty of very interesting pathology and patients on OB-Gyn but I didn't particularly find this specialty appealing other than how I could learn to differentiate pelvic problems from abdominal problems in the course of seeing patients.

I loved my Psychiatry rotation and found the expertise of my preceptor far greater than any clinician that I have dealt with to date. I developed a very strong appreciation and high degree of respect for that multitude of psychiatrists out there that just do a good job taking care of their patients. While psychiatry was not for me, it was an awesome rotation that brought a depth of understanding as to how many medical and surgical problems might present with psychiatric symptoms.

As you go through first and second year, take the time to join one of two specialty exploration/interest groups at your medical school. By joining these groups, you ca expose yourself to residents and attendings that can assist with your exploration of their specialty. It is participation in these types of specialty interest groups that can allow you to keep your focus when you feel that you just can't look at another histology slide or review another article for biochemistry.

Also keep in mind that certain specialties do require a high level of academic achievement in medical school. I have often spoken to medical students who have struggled with a course or two in medical school who feel like doors have closed for them because they won't be competitive for a dermatology residency. My first inclination when I speak to theses folks is to find out if they actually understand the scope and practice of dermatology. If they do have this understanding, are there other less-competitive specialties that will satisfy many of their need? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes.

Finally, as a close to this little essay which is like a part one of this issue, if you know that you are not particularly competitive for a speciality that you feel you can't live without, spend some quality time with the program director/department chairman of that specialty at your school. Try to figure out if you have some options that can increase your competitiveness for said specialty such as research. There might even be a possibility of finding a program or two in that specialty that might be in a less desirable location and therefor less competitive.

Don't listen to anyone except yourself when it comes to your needs in terms of the practice of medicine. In the end, it doesn't matter what you classmates say about the specialty that interests you. It's how you feel about what you are interested in practicing and your suitability for said specialty. It's also about your attentiveness to your academics/boards too.

If you had a slow first year, try to have a strong second year. If you had a weak second year, then try to have a very strong third year. In short, you can decide at any point, that you are going to upgrade your work ethic and performance.

13 March 2008

Dealing with patients you might not "like" for whatever reason.

I received a call about a consult for placement of a temporary dialysis catheter in the Medical Intensive Care Unit. When I arrived I quickly scanned the chart (coagulation profile, patient’s medical information etc.) and entered the room of the patient who needed the temporary dialysis catheter. Just before I entered the room, one of the resident physicians pulled me aside and said, “This guy weighs 500 pounds and let himself get to this point. On top of that, he smells. I just want to warn you to have your gas mask ready”. He laughed and I “thanked” him for the information and entered the room.

Lying in the bed was a 500+ pound gentleman who was restrained and mechanically ventilated. In one hand was an intravenous line which was leaking intravenous fluid. He had a very large abdominal pannus (apron of adipose tissue), multiple scars on both arms and both legs with both legs having open venous stasis ulcers that had become infected. I walked up to the bed and spoke to this patient to explain to him that his kidneys were failing and that he was going to need to have a dialysis catheter to help them along. He nodded to me but I wasn’t sure he could understand. I explained what I was going to do and that it might be uncomfortable but I would use as much local anesthetic as needed.

The nurse told me that the small intravenous line in his hand was not going to be adequate and that it was the only source of IV access that the patient had. It was tenuous at best. I asked if the patients family was present and the nurse said that they were in the waiting room. I told the nurse to gather the equipment for both a central venous line and a temporary hemodialysis catheter insertion while I went to speak with the patient’s family.

The patient’s wife was sitting in the waiting room with her daughter. She was tearful and spoke lovingly about her husband. She said that as he gained more and more weight, he became immobile. Finally, she said that nothing could get him out of his room and that she had difficulty getting him to comply with medications for diabetes and hypertension. She said that he would become angry and depressed when she attempted to help him with his personal hygiene or care of his venous stasis ulcers. I explained the need for the central venous line and the temporary hemodialysis catheter. I also explained the risks and benefits of the placement of these lines so that she could make an informed decision. She asked me to do what I could to help her husband get back to health.

After washing my hands and washing the areas of the patient where I intended to insert the catheters, I used a portable ultrasound machine to locate both the subclavian vein and the femoral vein. Both were fairly deep because of the large amount of subcutaneous fat that was present in this patient. I was able to mark off some landmarks and get to work. With the aid of a couple of nurses, I used adhesive tape to tape as much of the patient’s fat out of my way so that I could get to my intended target. After 30 minutes, I had inserted a central venous line into this patients left subclavian vein after taking about 20 minutes to carefully prepare the site. The more time I spent in prep, the easier it would be to get the line in under the best and most sterile conditions. I also had asked the nurse to give the patient a small amount of sedation so that the whole experience would be a little less alarming.

I then turned my attention to the femoral vein. Since temporary hemodialysis catheters were very large, I chose a long catheter and moved closer to the inguinal ligament as the vein would be larger there. As with the subclavian vein, I used a large amount of adhesive tape and three nurses to hold this gentleman’s large fat pannus out of the way. I inserted the line and had great blood flow and return. I also carefully secured the line with locking tape and sutures. I wanted to make sure that the patient would not be able to easily “pull” the line if he became disoriented and unrestrained. I also gave the local anesthetic plenty of time to take effect as most patients are pretty still if they are comfortable.

After a chest radiograph to confirm that my lines were in good position (with no pneumothorax), I phoned the nurses to let them know that the lines were safe to use. I also had “blocked” the hemodialysis catheter with an anticoagulant and thus I let the hemodialysis department know that this line was ready for use. I spoke with the patient’s family and let them know that the procedures, while taking a couple of hours, had gone well.

For the next three days, I went into the intensive care unit to check on the those lines and make sure that they were working fine. I spoke with the residents who kept congratulating me on “getting the lines in the whale” and laughing about this patient’s body habitus. On the third day, I didn’t see the joke and I didn’t see where calling this man a “hippo”, “whale”, or anything other than a sick patient was necessary. I asked them why they felt obligated to demean this gentleman that they didn’t really know (because he had been intubated) and they were charged with treating.

One of the residents said that he just doesn’t like “fat” people because they don’t take care of themselves and won’t follow his direction. He said that they could follow a good diet, exercise and not end up using up our precious health care resources for something that they “did to themselves”. Another resident said that he could “stand” the smell of the venous stasis ulcers and that he had to get out of the room as quickly as possible. While I appreciated their honesty, I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t have a problem with treating an alcoholic or a drug addict who had become ill because of self-inflicted abuse of a substance. I had encountered some “skin popper” IV drug abusers who had multiple cutaneous abscesses that smelled far worse than a couple of venous stasis ulcers.

I find it difficult to blame the patient for their disease. In my mind, just as a diabetic can’t make insulin, a morbid obese patient has a metabolic problem that is not under their control. By the time a patient winds up weighing 500 pounds, all personal control is lost. If you couple the massive weight with psychiatric disorders such as depression, one finds a very difficult and challenging patient with multiple problems that need to be addressed. I can’t just afford to “like” or “dislike” any of my patients because they need my help and not my judgment.
Two weeks later, I received a call from the hemodialysis unit secretary. The nephrologist wanted me to stop by the unit so that I could “speak” to this patient. He was off the ventilator and was not going to need hemodialysis as his renal function had greatly improved. When I saw him, he said that he remembered my speaking to him in the ICU. I was amazed that he would remember me with his condition but he remembered how I explained everything that I was going to do for him and how I spoke to him with respect.

I later heard from his attending physician that he entered a rehab center and was on his way to losing 100 pounds. His hypertension was greatly improved and his diabetes was managed by diet. Though he had a long way to go, he was moving along on his journey. Hearing this made me remember why I went into medicine in the first place. It is simply to help people regain their health.

I can’t make judgments on my patients because “there but for the grace of God, go I”. I have been given the privilege and opportunity to touch the lives of thousands of people. I have also been given the trust of those thousands to also have only the best of intentions when I treat them. This is what makes medicine like no other career on earth.

03 February 2008

What do you want from a career in medicine?

I am often asked why I decided to pursue a career in medicine; starting at a later age and with many demands both mentally and physically. Quite simply, I knew that I would enjoy those mental and physical demands because I love working with my patients to identify and help solve their health problems. When a patient walks into your clinic, office or you encounter them in the hospital, the most amazing relationship develops that you will ever experience. A person walks into your life and puts their health and trust into your hands. This trust means that you give your best knowledge in terms of figuring out their needs and meeting them.

Too many people will confuse what they see on the telly (House, Dr. Kildare, Gray’s Anatomy,Ben Casey, Scrubs, ER) with what is the actual reality of being a physician. There is little “glamor” in this job but there is loads of personal satisfaction in winning those hundreds of little “victories” that you will win over the course of a day. There is also the knowledge that if the health care system continues along the road that it has taken, you are going to make less money for every day that you work in the practice of medicine. The question that you need to ask is “am I willing to work this hard for this career?” If you can answer this in the affirmative no matter what the future holds, then likely you will have a satisfying career in medicine.

In no other career are you asked to be out of the work force for essentially 8 years just to be able to enter a job where you will be making less than minimum wage with an average educational debt of more than $150K. In no other career is your income totally dependent on the policies and regulations of private industry, government regulatory agencies, Congress and state governments. You have no control over what reimbursement will be for your services (those reimbursements have been cut every year in the name of holding down costs) while your costs of maintaining your practice have continued to increase dramatically.

Primary care (Internal Medicine, Family Medicine, Pediatrics and OB-GYN) have seen their ranks shrink in popularity among graduates of American medical schools for a number of reasons not the least of which is the extremely high costs of medical education, rising interest rates on loans and decreased pay. Those people who are yet to enter medical school and those who are yet to graduate face even more challenges in terms of just being able to make a living (purchase a house, pay off educational loans, open a practice). If you are not yet in medicine/medical school, you are likely (unless you enter the armed forces) not going to be able to afford to enter primary care because of past educational expenses. Along with that, add the fact that if you are not a very strong performer in medical school, you won’t be eligible for residency in one of the “money” specialties and thus, you will be scrambling to make a living even if you are able to get into medical school.

The American Medical Association has been extremely slow to organize and speak for the needs of the young physician. Most of the people (and I am thankful for their efforts) that are able to lobby, have been established physicians in specialties such as opthalmology who can afford to take a day away from practice because their loans are paid off and their homes are purchased and their children have their college education paid for. They have little in common with the newly minted physician who has a young family, a 10-year-old car from residency and a $2,000 a month loan payment in addition to rent (mortgage if they are lucky)and office overhead expenses. I remember my cousin, who is a neurosurgeon state back in the early 1990s that she had to make a minimum of $10,000 per week in order to keep her office door open. I am sure that number has increased (increased malpractice costs and office costs) while her payments have been decreasing. In the face of this, why would anyone want to enter this career? How would anyone afford to enter this career?

The answer to these questions are not easy but they are expensive both in time and energy. The truth of the matter is that you had better know as much about the day-to-day practice of medicine before you enter your pre-med curriculum because by the time you have finished your first two years of medical school, you have racked up too much debt to be able to do anything else. Little is taught about practice management/investment/finance either in medical school or residency. Medical school prepares you for residency and residency prepares you for practice.
Some people want residency programs to include more about practice management, marketing and finance but along came the 80-hour work week restrictions and thus, most residency programs are still scrambling to make sure that they can include all of the experiences that residents need to learn just to practice let alone add to what they need. The business of medicine is very complicated and growing more complicated daily with policy changes at both the federal and state level. It takes many hours to keep up and keep yourself informed.

This gets back to what do you want from a career in medicine? Financial/job security isn’t out there anymore. Definitely respect and admiration are not out there anymore. Hard work, long hours of study and personal and financial sacrifice are definitely out there and ahead. i caution anyone to look long and hard at this career because it’s not easy and there is no relief on the horizon. Be very, very sure that you have a realistic idea of what day-to-day life is like for physicians who are coming out today and not what you see on the telly. None of those shows are remotely close.

20 January 2008

When should I "give up" on applying to medical school?

I was speaking with a group of undergraduate pre-med students who asked me when I thought someone should “give up” on seeking admission into medical school. My first inclination was to say that if medical school and medicine is your “dream” you should never “give up”. I thought a bit about what might be behind the question and I thought it might make a good essay topic for my blogs.

I have never been a person who dealt in “shoulds” in terms of what might be the best situation for anyone’s life and life pursuit. If you want something and if really desire something, then pursue that “something” and make sure that you are in the best possible situation to achieve your goal. Any realistic (and the emphasis here is on realistic) goal is achievable in taking small steps daily toward it. Certainly, you cannot possibly reach anything if your are not moving “toward” it.

The pursuit of admission to medical school and medicine is a bit like having more than 100 pounds to lose. You have to be consistent with your work on a daily basis or you are not going to see results. This means that everything “counts” and you can’t afford to “slack” or you won’t reach your goals. Your undergraduate work is an opportunity to set yourself up with solid and disciplined study skills that can take you into medical school and beyond. It is also an opportunity to learn how to learn and master coursework. Just as daily exercise and diet modification will lead you closer to losing that 100 pounds (ounces at a time), daily preparation/study and mastery of your coursework will lead you closer to your goal (one semester at a time).

As you have probably heard, this is not a “sprint” but a “marathon” and like a marathon, you can’t just lace up your running shoes and expect to finish a 26.2 - mile race without some daily training and preparation. If you are not comfortable with long-term goal achievement, then use your undergraduate to obtain the characteristics that will make you comfortable with long-term goal achievement.

Overcoming difficulties
There are plenty of physicians out there who didn’t start off strong as an undergraduate. Perhaps they had some maturity problems or perhaps they just didn’t have the academic skills for the pre-med coursework but the important thing is that they kept their goals in mind. If something is not working for you in terms of getting your coursework mastered, then change it.

You can decide at this very minute -even if you are on the verge of dismissal- that you are going to turn your academics around “by any means necessary”. The process of doing this “turn-around” can be a huge asset in terms of making you competitive for medical school but you have to be successful. Just thinking about getting your academics together (like dreaming about losing 100 pounds) won’t make it happen but taking some active steps toward changing your methods will get results.

Many students have gone from extremely low undergraduate performances to getting themselves competitive but the process is not easy or short. Again, it’s back to the daily and consistent work with constant checkpoints to make sure that you are keeping on track. Enlist the assistance of any study skills courses at your school; enlist the help of peer tutors; enlist the help of a good academic adviser. In short, get help from any resources that you can find. Often, your school’s counseling service can help you identify resources at your school that can help you. You have to take the first steps and be willing to make some changes. Why not make the changes because what you are doing is either successful or it’s not?
Just remember, undergraduate “GPA damage control” is a long and expensive process. If you know this going in, then you can prepare yourself for the long haul. Again, medicine is not a sprint, it’s a long-term goal.

There are some things that are very, very difficult to overcome. I place things like academic dishonesty, felony convictions and substance abuse problems. Most medical schools, even if you are sitting there with a uGPA of 4.0 and an MCAT of 45, are not going to be very interested in you with these things in your background. If you have a substance abuse problem, get it taken care of long before you anticipate entry into medical school. There are excellent substance abuse programs out there and you can’t hide from your problems forever. Medical school on any pharmaceutical substance (other than pharmaceuticals prescribed by a physician within the guidelines of established medical practice) is expensive and heading for a crash either physically or legally. Neither of these are things that a prospective medical school would like to deal with. In short, take care of what you need to take care of and educate yourself so that you can handle life without drugs of any kind. If you “think” you have a problem with tobacco, alcohol, uppers, downers and any other illicit substances, then you have a “problem”. Get your “problems” solved as soon as they are identified.

Living in the “Real “World
You are going to read (and hear) stories out there about John or Jane X who got into Medical School A or B with a GPA of 2.5 and an MCAT or 20. Those John and Jane X’s are very, very unlikely to be real people. The average uGPA for medical school matriculants in 2007 was around 3.65 and the average MCAT was around 31. This means that the further from those average on the low side that you are, the lower your chances of admission. Admission to medical school with a uGPA of 2.5 is not impossible but it is improbable since the uGPA averages have been increasing every year. Get your uGPA as high as you can period. Get the highest MCAT score that you can period.

There are also folks out there who would believe that if you are an URM (Underrepresented Minority) in medicine, that you can get into medical school with drastically lower GPAs/MCAT. This is simply not the case because you have to have something in your application that shows you are capable of mastery of a challenging medical curriculum. If you are a URM and far below the uGPA/MCAT averages, then you likely don’t have a competitive application. Do what you have to do, to make yourself competitive and be prepared to take some years to get this done. I don’t care what your ethnicity/race is, you still have to be able to get through medical school if admitted. Admission is no guarantee that you will complete medical school. If you uGPA/MCAT is low, get yourself competitive by whatever means you have at your disposal.

But when do I “give up”?
You must answer this question for yourself. Preparation, application and matriculation in medical school is a very expensive process. How much time and money do you have? If you are a re-applicant, what you have you done to significantly improve your chances of admission? Just reapplying to medical school to “show them that you really, really want this” is not enough. You have to make some improvements on your application before you spend that money to reapply. Again, take a realistic look at what might have kept you out and get it improved.

If your application didn’t work this year, rework everything that you can rework before you submit for a future year. If you are reapplying to the same schools, you especially need to change and improve everything about your application that can be changed. Get fresh letters of recommendation, rewrite your personal statement (I don’t care how wonderful you believe it is, it didn’t work) and take more coursework if your uGPA is very low. Retake the MCAT if that is holding you back. (Beware though, retaking the MCAT and scoring lower can be a death blow). What ever you do, be sure to make it an improvement and not a change for the worse.

Looking at other career options
Some people believe that if they explore other career options such as physician assistant, nursing or physical therapy, that they are somehow giving up their dream. Nothing could be further from the truth. Explore other careers and have a realistic appraisal of how competitive you are for those careers. You may find that one of those careers better suits you in the first place from the standpoint of time of schooling to what your actual interests/motivation for medicine might be.

I am not advocating for anyone to seek to be a physician assistant, nurse or physical therapist because they “couldn’t get into medical school” but I am advocating that you should have a career back-up that you can love and pursue. You may not be competitive for physician assistant, nursing or physical therapist or you may not be interested in these great careers but you can’t make an honest decision without career exploration first. You may find again, that these careers are a great option for you and a better option than medicine.

Parting thoughts
Finally, be willing to let any of your advisers take a long and hard look at your competitiveness for medical school. If you don’t get in, get input from any and every excellent resource that you can find. Your goal is success on reapplication and you want to do everything that is within your grasp to ensure your success. Only you can tell when it’s time to move on to another career option and it’s YOUR life to live as you wish. Enlist any and all help that you can to get what you both need and want out of life.

The pursuit of becoming an excellent physician is a long goal. There will be people along the way who will tell you what you “can” and “cannot” accomplish. If you know yourself, and have faith in yourself, you know that you can accomplish anything that you want. You have to be willing to “run your own race” and take care of your own “needs”. There are as many routes into medical school as their are medical students.
If you should decide that you don’t want to pursue medicine, then that’s the best decision for you. Don’t let your life’s dream be anyone’s other than your own. It takes a fair about of courage to stand back, take a realistic appraisal of where you are and make the decision to move on to something else.

The other thing to consider is that getting into medical school does not have an age limit. Just because you decide not to continue with the pursuit next year does not mean that you can’t do something else and revisit medical school application three, four or even ten years down the line. As long as you have the desire, the stamina and are willing to earn competitive credentials, then give yourself a couple of years to decompress before you dive back into this process. If something doesn’t “click” for you in 2006, it might “click” in 2009 because you are a different person with a different perspective.