What should your doctor have learned in medical school. What should medical schools teach? Physicians I’ve talked to have said medical school is brutal. The amount of knowledge that students need to learn is immense. According to a recent poll up to 25% of medical students are thinking about quitting. One of the biggest stressors is the sheer volume of material that students must master.
Long before applying to medical school aspiring physicians generally must have followed a similar trajectory. Historically students were expected to have achieved nearly perfect scores in grade school and high school and have entered a university program and majored in premed or a life sciences program. The grade point average (GPA) of matriculating students varies with each university program, but the average PGA for those accepted to medical school was 3.75 in 2022-2023. The average MCAT score is around 500, with the highest possible score of 528. Nonetheless, data from the Association of American Medical Colleges illustrates an applicant’s probability of admission does not rise above 50% until his or her GPA is above 3.7 and their MCAT is above 510.
It takes more than a great GPA and a high MCAT score to gain acceptance to medical school. Most successful applicants will have volunteered for community organizations or taken summer internships in hospitals and clinics. Medical schools want well-rounded students with more to show for their lives than just study. A former associated dean of the University of Pennsylvania medical school has accused medical school programs of increasingly adopting so-called “woke” policies and training as part of their curriculum. Presumably, medical students are not merely supposed to be highly motivated and super intelligent, they’re supposed to be activists too! A few months ago a physician on Twitter (now called simply X), commented that while in a staff meeting at a medical school it was suggested that perhaps prospective students should have started a nonprofit organization or similar charitable endeavor. The suggestion was dismissed as too onerous on students already under immense pressure. Plus, when would a college premed student find the time?
According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, medical schools are increasingly adding climate change to their curriculum. One Harvard Medical School student activist had this to say about when he was a first-year student:
“We discussed the intersection of racism and environmental justice and how it affects patient exposure to things like air pollution,” Shirley says. Though limited to that type of framework, he says learning about the complex interactions between racism and health – and how climate injustice relates to both – was eye-opening.
Later as a third-year student, Shirley said:
“Now, as students are going through the first-year curriculum, they actually have longitudinal content that is integrated into the different basic science courses and medical science courses that helps explain better, in a more data-driven way, the relationship between climate and health,” says Shirley, co-leader of Students for Environmental Awareness in Medicine, an organization started at Harvard in 2005 with the goal of improving how medicine addresses the intersection of environmental issues and human health.
With the amount of information physicians are expected to learn it’s somewhat difficult to see how climate change curriculum fits into medical school. Tropical disease is a specialty that is mostly relegated to developing nations near the tropics, although if dengue fever, West Nile virus and malaria is increasing in the U.S. I can certainly see teaching more about them. Heat-related conditions are something I would expect medical colleges in the Southwest to teach rather than a medical college in New England.
A potential hurdle for schools implementing climate-focused shifts is doing so in a way that fits into an existing medical curriculum. Lawson, at Duke, says it’s a recurring “challenge in medical education not to overwhelm either the faculty or the students.”
The health problems most prevalent in the United States are heart disease, hypertension and obesity-related diseases that disproportionately affect poor and disadvantaged populations. Teaching medical students about diseases they are less likely to encounter does not sound like the best curriculum for a medical school. But, then again, medical school professors tend to discourage their students from careers in primary care where they could practice preventive medicine. If medical schools really want to train social activists, why don’t they encourage students to practice primary care where they are more likely to make the greatest difference for underserved patients who most need them?
The article on climate change in medical school curriculum is available at U.S. News & World Report.