Future of Health Care Depends on Properly Supporting Pre-Med Students

I've spent nearly two decades being tutored by students seeking to become physicians. They have taught me much about the challenges and rewards of a career in medicine, and most of them give me hope for the future of our health care system, regardless of what's happening or not happening in Washington.

Much is expected of any individual in college seeking to become a physician: they must have excellent grades, they are expected to achieve leadership in extracurricular activities, they need to acquire extensive clinical experience, and they must demonstrate a significant and enduring commitment to serving others. They are frequently advised to engage in undergraduate research as well. All of this they must achieve before they file their applications to medical school.

It does not surprise me that many prospective physicians abandon the goal or that even the most high-achieving pre-meds question their objective. Their questioning should be encouraged, as should their efforts to meet the standards expected of them.

Undergraduate institutions play a large role in the shaping of our physician workforce. We can use our introductory science courses as a "weeding out" of those whom we judge unable to handle the scientific components of a medical education. Or we can choose to offer small sections of these same introductory courses, taught by faculty who dedicate themselves to teaching undergraduates.

We can watch talented students walk away from the challenges they meet in science and math courses, or we can develop appropriate tutorial support. We can emphasize the need for high grades and test scores and reward the "gunner" mentality that values only these achievements, or we can connect our students to alumni, who will share with them the rewards of pursuing a medical career that incorporates serving those in need.

Aspiring doctors frequently question whether they can do all that is expected of them, yet they fear articulating their apprehension or their confusion. We can continue to place great focus on the need for them to achieve excellence in multiple areas, or we can help them craft a path from where they are to where they want to be.

Undergraduate pre-medical education can't be accomplished entirely by an individual student. We have found that upper-division students, physicians and medical student alumni contribute greatly to the success of the younger pre-med students. Whether it involves tutoring, helping students find a service project or a clinical mentor, or demonstrating the value of service, the upperclassmen and alumni model not only being members of a community but also seeing the unmet needs of the wider community.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that medical schools are trying to strengthen students' "right brain" abilities to make them more sensitive doctors. I couldn't agree more, and I would add that such training should begin during undergraduate years.

We are a Jesuit University, and our students know that they are expected to become "men and women for others." Our pre-med students know that their desire to volunteer in the Scranton community is supported by an active community outreach program that helps them link their interests and talents to the needs of community organizations. Each fall, scores of our students sign up for a three-day retreat on "Medicine as Service," during which they work with alumni physicians, residents, and medical students exploring how and why they might "serve when they can't fix what's broken."

Undergraduate pre-medical students at all institutions have always faced significant expectations. As medical and graduate medical education move to competency-based models, and as the MCAT is transformed into whatever the fifth version becomes, those who seek to educate pre-meds need to remind ourselves that these students who face seemingly impossible challenges require our attention.

Mary F. Engel, Ph.D., is director of Fellowship Programs and Medical School Placement at The University of Scranton.