What Makes a Medical School Great?

With only 20,000 new M.D.'s graduating each year to help care for a nation of over 310 million people, optimizing their education is critical.
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The medical school interview season has just concluded. Each year, approximately 45,000 students vie for approximately 20,000 first-year positions at U.S. M.D.-granting medical schools. Most of these students will not have gained admission, and if they wish to become physicians they will need to seek medical education outside the U.S., pursue an alternate degree such as a D.O. (doctor of osteopathy), or improve their grade point averages and test scores and apply again next year. At the other end of the spectrum, many fortunate students face the task of choosing between multiple schools.

With only 20,000 new M.D.'s emerging each year to help care for a nation of over 310 million people, these are momentous choices. Every graduate counts, and where students go to school can powerfully shape the kinds of physicians they become. What factors should count the most in choosing a medical school?

A thriving medical school will have strong commitment to the health and well-being of its community, and its students will be actively engaged in volunteer activities to help their neighbors.

One important factor is clearly reputation, often expressed in the form of rankings. A number of publications and websites purport to rank the 140 U.S. M.D.-granting schools on factors such as research funding, publications by faculty, selectivity in admissions, the average grade point averages and test scores of accepted students, and a difficult-to-quantify prestige factor associated with the school itself or the larger university of which it is a part. While it is fashionable to downplay such rankings, many schools, particularly those that are highly ranked or moving up, tend to trumpet them loudly.

Such rankings do mean something. For one thing, being associated with an elite institution probably opens doors throughout the remainder of a physician's career, and there is real benefit to training with top students. In some cases, however, the reputation exceeds the reality. Education is not the only factor in the rankings, and research prowess does not necessarily equate to teaching excellence. And while there may be a real difference between the number one and number 100 schools, it is questionable whether there is any real difference between the number 20 and 30 schools.

Another increasingly important factor is cost. The median cost of a 4-year medical education is now over $265,000. Over 85 percent of students graduate in debt, and the average indebtedness is over $160,000. Due to accumulating interest on loans, most students will need to pay back considerably more. There is some evidence that this high level of indebtedness is influencing students' decisions about which medical fields to enter, placing a premium on ones that offer a higher income and steering students away from fields in which the need is greatest, such as the primary care specialties.

The most important issue in choosing a school should not be cost but value: the ratio of quality over price. Some offshore medical schools that function as "last resorts" are able to charge very high tuition. On the other hand, the tuition at some top-flight public medical schools is relatively low. Of course, tuition isn't the only factor contributing to cost, and students also need take into account differences in cost of living between locales. Also, many students get married or have children during or shortly after school, which can further magnify the importance of the cost factor.

Students and their families and advisors tend to spend too much time thinking about rankings and costs, in part because they are easily quantified. Whether such quantitative factors are really valid or not, the numbers seem to make it easy to compare schools against each other. But merely relying on an aggregate value score (ranking/cost or something to this effect) would leave out vital features that deserve to be taken seriously. For lack of a better term, we aggregate these factors under a general category that we call "culture."

Are students treated to some degree as colleagues who can assume increasing degrees of responsibility not only for patient care but for charting their own professional futures?

Some might assume that, because culture cannot be quantified, it is somehow soft rather than hard, subjective rather than objective, and ultimately, far less reliable than quantitative measures. Yet we should bear in mind that though many of the most important aspects of our lives are similarly non-quantifiable, we do not rely on them any less. For example, imagine choosing a spouse based strictly on quantitative measures. What would we measure -- body mass index, IQ, and expected lifetime earnings? Most would find any such ranking ridiculous.

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Presented by

Richard Gunderman & James Lynch

Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. His most recent book is X-Ray Vision. James Lynch, MD, is professor of hematology and oncology and assistant dean of admission at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

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