Even though I attended a small private university without a medical school, I met a handful of people who claimed to be pre-med majors. That certainly made me raise my eyebrows, but I also had friends who wanted to be attorneys and our college didn’t have a law school, so I didn’t bother to question them further.
Trusty old Wikipedia defines pre-med as “a term used to describe a track that an undergraduate student in the United States pursues prior to becoming a medical student. It refers to the activities that prepare an undergraduate student for medical school, such as pre-med coursework, volunteer activities, clinical experience, research, and the application process,” so essentially pre-med itself is not a college major.
In fact, most colleges and universities don’t have an actual pre-med major. Students wishing to continue their education and attend medical school to become doctors can actually choose any undergraduate major, as long as certain courses required by the Association of American Medical Colleges are completed. Most pre-med undergraduates major in biology, chemistry, or physics.
The process of preparing for medical school—crossing the threshold and actually becoming a medical student as opposed to a pre-med student—can be extremely stressful. For generations, college courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and math have proven that it’s the survival of the fittest. Pre-med undergraduate coursework and activities are often so difficult that plenty of people just can’t make it. Next comes the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT—one of the toughest exams out there, but necessary for applying to medical school.
Or is it?
A July 29, 2010 New York Times article revealed a little-known secret about the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. The school’s Humanities and Medicine Program promises slots to about 35 undergraduates a year if they study humanities or social sciences instead of the traditional pre-medical school curriculum and maintain a 3.5 grade-point average.
A peer-reviewed study conducted by Dr. Nathan Kase, the Mount Sinai program’s founder, and Dr. David Muller, the medical school’s dean for medical education, compared outcomes for 85 students in the Humanities and Medicine Program with those of 606 traditionally prepared (pre-med) classmates from the graduating classes of 2004 through 2009 was published earlier this week by Academic Medicine, the journal of the Association of Medical Colleges.
Results show that the students who did not follow a pre-med track during their undergraduate years or take the MCAT had academic success in medical school equivalent to their peers who had. The study also found that the humanities students made more sensitive doctors: they were more than twice as likely to train as psychiatrists and somewhat more likely to go into primary care fields, like pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology. However, they tend to avoid other fields such as surgical subspecialties and anesthesiology.
Mount Sinai Medical School is not alone; there are a few other medical schools in the United States and Canada which admit students who have not taken the MCAT, but to quote Dr. Dan Hunt, co-secretary of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the medical school accrediting agency, Mount Sinai seems to “have gone furthest in eschewing traditional science preparation.”
In order to be accepted into Mount Sinai’s Humanities and Medicine program, undergraduate students must apply during their sophomore or junior year of college while pursuing a degree in humanities or the social sciences. If they are in fact admitted, they are only required to take basic biology and chemistry, giving them the ability to skip the dreaded organic chemistry, physics, and calculus. Instead, they will spend the summer after their junior year taking “crash courses,” for lack of a better term, in organic chemistry and other medical topics such as bioethics and health policy.
The Humanities and Medicine Program has been in effect for the past ten years, and typically 5 to 10 percent of each class drops out before getting to medical school. Last year, the program received nearly 300 applications from more than 80 colleges across the country, but admissions are typically granted to those from “elite schools.” The program initially began with a few students from five schools which did not have their own medical schools— Amherst, Brandeis, Princeton, Wesleyan and Williams.
The report in Academic Medicine concludes that, "The benefits accrued by liberalizing undergraduate premedical education so that students may focus on the humanities and social sciences are significant,” but how does the American public feel? My guess is that most people have no idea where their physicians went to college and medical school.
The rather comedic blog Gawker featured a post on the topic entitled Hippie Medical School Just Letting In Any Old Theater Major. Its author must not have been too thrilled with the Humanities and Medicine program, since they asked, “How would you like to find out that your doctor’s undergrad days were spent majoring not in chemistry or biology, but in reading lesbian poetry and smoking reefer? Yes, it is time to overreact.”
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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