The body of students being admitted to medical school has changed drastically in recent years as institutions are trying harder to find students who are well-rounded. As a result, the coming years will witness the birth of a whole new breed of doctors. The question I will address is what this change will mean for the practice of medicine.
One major change seen in students admitted to medical school is their undergraduate course of study. The percentage of applicants who are science majors has remained steady, but what is changing is who gets admitted. Medical schools are now accepting an increasing percentage of non-science majors.
This increased emphasis on non-science pursuits is reflected in the coming changes in the MCAT; in 2015, there will be a new section called Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior. According to the AAMC, the addition of this section stresses the importance of the socio-cultural and behavioral determinants of health and health outcomes.
Another major change in the admissions process is that medical schools are accepting a larger percentage of older and non-traditional students. In fact, about 30% do not take a traditional pre-medical path. Furthermore, the average age of medical students is increasing. Not too long ago, the average matriculation age was 22 (as this was and still is the average age when a person gets their bachelor’s degree). Today, it is age 24 (nearing age 25 at the University of Wisconsin).
More students are also getting master’s and doctorate degrees or are taking time off to work, do research, or travel before starting medical school. The advantage here is that these people truly know that they want to become doctors. When you get older, it is a bigger risk to go back to medical school, so older matriculants are perhaps more serious or less ambivalent about their medical career than a younger, less experienced college graduate.
The curriculum at many medical schools is also changing. Despite having to learn more material over the years, medical students are spending less time in lecture. More instruction is occurring in small group exercises. Spending less time in class allows for more time for independent study, research, and personal pursuits.
As a result of all these changes, we are breeding a whole new class of doctors. So what does all this mean for the practice of medicine?
There is reason to believe that this new generation of doctors will better be able to relate to their patients. This is extremely important and will perhaps be more difficult to do because the patient population is also changing; patients are becoming older (due to aging Baby Boomers) and more racially and ethnically diverse.
Therefore, we need our doctors to be more diverse (I mostly mean diversity of experience) and well-rounded. Future doctors who pursue other interests outside of medicine and take classes outside of the sciences in college are more well-rounded and better able to connect with their patients.
Connections between doctors and patients will bring them closer together, enhance the patient-doctor relationship, and make the patients feel more at ease during their time of suffering.
My only concern with this new class of doctors is that some have less education in biology and biological research. They may be better able to connect with their patients, but does this matter if they are not as capable of diagnosing and treating patients as well as past doctors, almost all of whom had strong science backgrounds and spent more time in lecture during medical school?
This is a tough question to answer, but the strong science education that medical students receive should be enough to give them the tools they need to think like doctors and scientists and treat patients. To conclude, there is definitely reason to be optimistic about the future of medicine.