An Alternative to Pre-Med Syndrome


SO YOU WANT to be an M.D.? 17,000 place in U.S. medical schools waiting to be filled. The bad news is that there will be anywhere from 35,000-40,000 people applying for them.

For most Harvard undergraduates, these statistics may cause little of no concern. Harvard pre-meds annually fare better than most applicants--with an estimated 90 percent of the students applying to medical schools this year finding a spot. But for the great majority gaining admittance to medical school remains a formidable, if not intimidating, challenge. Especially upsetting is the woefully low percentage of urban minority students who are selected, down somewhere in the 5 to 9 percent range. In fact from 1974-1982, there was a decrease in the proportion of Black student enrollment from about 7.5 percent to 5.8 percent.

Several causes may be cited for these discouraging figures, but one reason may be the all-or-nothing character of the typical pre-med education. In other words, students who need to secure a career and earn money as quickly as possible may find it difficult to stake their hopes on the typical pre-med preparation which will present them only with long-shot admissions adds. Because less than half the pre-med students in the country are admitted to medical schools, it would make more sense for them to direct their efforts to a more secure and immediately rewarding goal.

Surely no one should seriously consider a lowering of admissions standards for medical schools. Only those who demonstrate that they are qualified to be physically should receive the necessary education. Still, there must be a better way to provide under-represented groups with pre-med training other than the traditionally high pressure, low success pre-med take course. Such a method must at the same time address that need for career security.

THE STATE UNIVERSITY of New York recently experimented with such an approach. The universities program combined a strong scientific curriculum with practical technical training so as to prepare students for the job market while leaving the door open for medical school. Centered around the laboratory, the program sought to provide students with a theoretical understanding of the material, which is the basis for the clinical methodology taught in medical school, while at the same time investing the participants with readily applicable skills. By focusing on both the scientific and technical side of medicine, they were able to produce trained medical technologists who are now also qualified to climb the career ladder and pursue further training and become doctors.


The pace, moreover, was more leisurely than the traditional pre-med program. For example, a one semester course was spread over 15 weeks, a luxury not possible in the typically crammed medical school curricula. In the end, however, the theoretical content covered in the courses was similar to that covered in many of the traditional medical school programs.

In Theory, the program may sound fine, but the true test is to examine the results. And according to Ihelma Carter, a former director of the program, the results were excellent indeed. Nearly every graduate who sought work as a technologist found it and hospital called the directors frequently in search of graduates to fill open positions. But the most encouraging result of all was that as many of the students become more confident they applied for admission to medical schools and doctorate programs. And, sure enough, many of these found spots in some of the nation's top ranked medical schools, including Cornell, Harvard and Johns Hopkins.

Perhaps most importantly, the records show that 40 percent of the students who completed the program were Black or Hispanic and many had received training only in a community college before enrolling.

According to Carter, "Many of our students came from working class backrounds. They were often the first in their families to go to college. Our program made it possible for tham to commit their efforts to a short-term goal--the attainment of a degree along with skills useful in the job market."

The program not only shows that there are alternative routes toa medical schools education but also raises questions about the traditional medical school training as it is often encountered in undergraduate programs, where fierce competition for grades and fear of rejection from medical schools weights heavily on the minds at all students especially those from lower and middle class backrounds. Motcover the traditional route often leaves the student with few career alternatives. A multipurpose education which provides stdents with very marketable skills as well as preparation for higher professional goals appears to be a noteworthy alternative.

While this example may seem irrelevant to Harvard pre-med students, who can feel fairly secure about their chances of getting into medical school, they must remember that once they enter the select medical community they face obligations other than practicing medicine. And among these, one of the most important is to improve the overall state of their profession.