Physician, train thyself

Before they can practice, doctors must study long and hard

Before they can practice, doctors must study long and hard

January 18, 2005|by CHRIS COPLEY

The fields of medicine and crime-scene investigation overlap more than you might think. A thorough knowledge of human biology, biochemistry and analytical tools - blood typing, tissue analysis, bone size, the way living and dead tissues behave - is important for doctors and investigators.

That overlap explains why Washington County Academy of Medical Careers students conduct exercises in basic crime-scene investigation. Police investigators must make sense of evidence at a crime scene; physicians and nurses must be able to make sense of "evidence" of a patient's condition, even if symptoms are not textbook clear.

So a doctor's training is rigorous. Dana Harriger, associate professor of biology at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., said people who want to be doctors must be good at math and science - and have a desire to help others.


And, of course, the salary is not bad, either.

"When I was younger, being a doctor meant a big house and big money," Harriger said. "That is changing. It's more back to the wellness and healing aspect."

Math and science

Clinical doctors - that is, doctors who see patients - must master a number of important skills. They must know how the body works; they must be able to solve problems; they must communicate well with patients, employees and other doctors; they must learn quickly.

Standards are so high, according to Betsy Estilow, professor of biology and director of health professions at Hood College in Frederick, Md., that only about 40 percent of medical school applicants nationwide are accepted. At top schools, the acceptance rate is even lower.

"Grades are extremely important," Estilow said. "For Georgetown University in 2003, they had 7,547 applicants, and they accepted 170."

High school students who want to pursue medical careers must take advanced science and math, Estilow said. In college, it's the same prescription: Take the tough math and science courses.

"You don't have to have an undergrad major in medicine," Estilow said. "But medical schools are looking for evidence you are competent in the sciences. There are a lot of physical principles in medicine. That means usually a year of biology, a year of physics and a couple years of chemistry."

Harriger said tough math and science courses train students to think, to analyze. Health care isn't like a multiple choice test.

"Students who do well in mathematics and sciences tend to do well in medicine," he said. "It has to do with the way you think. As a physician, you're not presented with four possible answers (to a health problem) and told to pick which one it is. You have to be able to analyze the process and figure out the solution."

A well-rounded candidate

Hagerstown Community College math and science chairwoman Judy Peisen said students who think they want to be doctors should try it early to make sure the field is right for them.

"Medical schools are looking for students who have proven they care about the patients," she said. "It's not just grades. They don't want people who are just booksmart. And they don't want to waste the school's resources on people who just want to party."

There are ways for candidates to separate themselves from the pack:

· Show you have sampled the field and like it for a career, Harriger said.

· Volunteer at hospitals or nursing homes.

· Find internships at doctors' offices or health clinics.

· Take part in job-shadowing programs in health-related facilities.

When medical schools have a pile of academically qualified applicants, Harriger said, these other things become important, even critical.

"Show the commitment level on the student's part," he said. "Show a broader picture."

"If you don't show some evidence that you would work well with other people, you may have some problems," Peisen said. "A lot of people good in sciences are not good with people. Schools will look for (applicants) who are good at leadership, someone who can learn a lot of material really quickly. And a lot of schools say you need to get some hands-on experience."

Dr. Mitesh Kothari, a physician with Comprehensive Women's Care in Hagers-town, graduated from Boonsboro High School. He said the medical field is changing. There are an increasing variety of opportunities - more second-career students and women are entering medical school; more doctors are working part-time - but the typical workday of a full-time doctor is long, and the work is hard.

"'Thank God it's Friday' really doesn't apply," Kothari said. "People still get sick on weekends. But there is a shift toward a better lifestyle for doctors. More doctors are working ER, working three or four days and then you're off - turn off the pager."

But the training process is "grueling," Kothari said, which is beginning to impact the number of applicants to medical schools.

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