Employment Guide: The human element: What it takes to be a good doctor


By Jessica Craig / Columnist

It takes about 11 years to become a doctor – four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, one year as an intern and two years, minimum, of residency.

As a freshman pre-medicine and neuroscience student, I spent a good deal of time making sure that, in four or five years, I would be a “strong” medical school applicant — someone who, as all first-year pre-med students find out at the Health Professions Mandatory Sessions, has completed 20 hours of shadowing, 100 hours of clinical experience, 50 hours of campus and community service, leadership experience, 34 pre-requisite classes, a GPA of 3.75 and letters of recommendation from two science instructors, one research instructor and two service-affiliated employers.

In the next few years, I would learn that the implementation of such a strict pre-medicine curriculum forces students to focus on checking off all the boxes of requirements instead of really learning what it means and what it takes to be a “good” doctor. In other words, pre-med students complete all these extra-curricular activities with the short-term focus of being strong medical school applicants, rather than the long-term focus of being good doctors.

I see the connection between the on-paper requirements and the goals of the undergraduate pre-health curriculum — to create a student who “demonstrates command of the basic sciences, a deep understanding of the profession and a commitment to help others through the practice in a medically related field.” 

This is a seemingly fitting definition, one that encompasses everything I would hope doctors possess following their time spent earning an undergraduate education. Superior grades in science classes certainly merit understanding of the basic sciences, shadowing and clinical exposure lend themselves to understanding the medical profession and community involvement shows a commitment to helping others.

But this med-student recipe, set by the advisers and physicians who sit on the Pre-Professional Health Committee — a committee that assesses students’ potential in medicine through the lens of medical school admissions committees nationwide — is so rigid that pre-med students fail to recognize themselves as anything other than a list of activities on a resumé, rather than as a compassionate and empathetic human being who will one day assume the responsibility of others’ lives. Yet, as any pre-med adviser will tell you, although learning to be empathetic is great, it won’t indefinitely help your medical school application. 

I learned this from personal experience.

Entering my sophomore year, I was hoping to gain clinical experience after having spent the summer shadowing surgeons and physicians from my hometown in central Maryland. The pre-med advisers and all related websites suggest to volunteer at a hospital, so I did. After I quickly mastered the ability to pour water for patients and to stand at a podium greeting families who, for the most part, ignored me as they pressed through the hospital’s revolving doors, I started looking for a position where I could gain actual hands-on clinical experience. More importantly, I started looking for a volunteer position where I could make a difference in someone’s life.

I took a job as a personal care assistant for a cerebral palsy patient. Through that, I learned about the disease, how it affects a patient’s independence and how it changes an entire family’s lifestyle. I was treating and assessing a patient’s needs, assisting in rehabilitation and administering medication and food through a gastrostomy feeding tube. 

I had a decision to make, and, for the first time, I asked myself not what would make me a stronger medical school applicant, but what would make me a better doctor: pouring water for patients or learning to be empathetic, compassionate and humble — qualities that I, and hundreds of other surveyed Twitter users, believe make a “good” doctor?

I chose what would ultimately make me a better doctor — I call it a life experience, because regardless of whether I end up at medical school or not, it has made me more aware and sympathetic towards others.

This is where the pre-med curriculum fails — it leaves little time for life experience. Physicians draw on this to connect to patients, to calm them down before surgery and to instruct and be listened to. This is life experience that makes physicians human, not just a resumé of activities and grades, nor robotic sources of information.

Medicine, at its core, is human. And that’s not easily taught, because no two people learn it the same way.

Perhaps, then, pre-med students need to stop confining themselves to the four years of a typical undergraduate education and viewing it as the only time in which they can prepare for their medical career. A pre-med adviser at Pitt, Andrea Abt, suggests that students “join the Peace Corps., Teach For America, AmeriCorps, pursue national scholarships, internships or work prior to entering medical school which enhances their understanding of the world and people.” She went on to explain that, “Pre-med at Pitt encourages all students to take one or more gap years. The students (or their parents) create the frenzy to rush to the next step.”

But, as national aid jobs are scarce, internships are often unpaid and employers are passing up bachelor’s degrees for master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, it is not economically feasible to take a gap year, let alone two.  

Maybe the pre-med curriculum needs to be rethought to align with today’s competitive job market and constricting economy, while also preparing students to be both good doctors and good people. 

In the end, an updated pre-med curriculum will make the medical field more diverse, more human and composed of people who have walked in thousands of different shoes, not just the hospital volunteer-undergraduate/researcher-campus leader shoes.

Write to Jessica at [email protected]

Leave a comment.