Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Who will care for the underserved? The role of off-shore medical schools

I have written in several previous posts (most recently Universal Coverage and Primary Care: The US needs both, May 27, 2010) about the challenges facing American medicine, particularly regarding specialty choice (=not primary care, not rural, not underserved) of US allopathic graduates, and the problems this has already created in providing health care to the American people, which is only likely to worsen as this trend continues. I have noted that, in the production of physicians as in any other process, the outcome results from variables in inputs (who is admitted in this case), the process itself (in education, the curriculum, both formal and informal), and output variables (in the case of physicians, what the practice environment is: reimbursement, work load, quality of life, respect and regard within the profession and community). I have argued that, while output variables may be the most important in terms of specialty choice and practice location, it is the one over which medical educators have the least control. While the curriculum, the process through which we educate medical students, is critical (see Are we training physicians to be empathic? Apparently not., Sept 12, 2009), it is likely that the characteristics of the students selected is most important in determining practice location, particularly for rural areas, but also for urban underserved settings (Medical Student Selection, Dec 14, 2008). Selecting students who grew up in the suburbs of major cities (what Robert Bowman, MD, who has done much research in this area, calls “major medical centers”) in homes with high socioeconomic status and excellent high school and college educations (which is what is mainly done) will result in students with excellent test performance and is likely to produce skilled physicians, but not ones likely to practice in rural or underserved areas.

Students from rural areas, from underserved communities, from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, and from underrepresented minority groups are much more likely to serve these populations, as are students who are older at the time of matriculation. But their lower grades and MCATs, may make them less likely to be accepted, and to have difficulty with the pre-clinical medical curriculum. Students, even from privileged backgrounds, whose prior life history includes significant service are also more likely to work in urban underserved settings; less so (although more than their colleagues without these characteristics) in rural areas. But what about schools of other types or medical schools not in the US?

In a conversation with US Senator Sam Brownback on a visit to his office last year, members of the Kansas Academy of Family Physicians (KAFP) noted the challenges in getting KUMC graduates to work in rural areas. In an off-the-cuff response (I don’t mean to suggest that this was thought-out or his real position; I use the statement as a basis for comment) he suggested that we then just start a medical school at Kansas State University that would train rural primary care doctors. This type of response to a system that is not having the impact that policy makers wish for is common – create a new school, or focus on another different type of school (e.g., osteopathic), or another profession (nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants). But, of course, if they take the same sorts of students and offer them the same range of career opportunities, why would one expect different outcomes? Osteopathic graduates, while still entering family medicine and primary care at higher rates than allopathic, are increasingly becoming specialists. NPs, and especially PAs, are increasingly joining specialty physician practices and remaining in urban areas with high income potential rather than high need. Why would they not? Would you, or your children?

Because there are far more residency training positions than there are US graduates, many of these positions are filled with international medical graduates. A special group of these are “US IMGs”, Americans who, unable to be admitted to US medical schools, attend those outside the country. In the Caribbean, there are many schools, for-profit, set up for precisely this purpose. I recently had the opportunity to give the “White Coat Ceremony” talk to the class entering the largest of these: Ross University School of Medicine ( on the island of Dominica. Ross, in existence for over 30 years and now owned by DeVry, the largest for-profit educational company in the US, has a “business model” that enrolls 3 classes per year paying tuition much the same as a private US private school or an out-of-state student at a US public medical school. After the first two years, students do clinical clerkships in 70 hospitals in the US that are affiliated with the school – and paid by them. The student body is ethnically very diverse, with over half the members of the class I spoke to born outside the US (although 95% are US citizens or permanent residents; the rest mostly Canadian), but not including a large percentage of students from traditional underrepresented minority groups, and certainly not many from poor families. Ross graduate disproportionately enter primary care specialties, but this is almost certainly because primary care is less competitive than many subspecialties, and the fact that they didn’t train at US schools puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the selection process. Nonetheless, there are several positive things to be said about the Ross experience. First, Ross has a single mission – medical education. The considerable funds it generates are not required to support a large research or clinical enterprise, but can be directed to that mission. Second, it takes students who, because of their grades, wouldn’t – didn’t – get into US medical schools, and gives them a chance to succeed. If there is a high failure rate as a result, there are also unquestionably outstanding doctors produced who would not have otherwise existed. They are able, because of their business model, to take a “chance” on these students – and if they work hard, they can be successful.

While there a very many Caribbean medical schools, of different ages, quality, and size, operated more-or-less on the Ross model, a quite different model exists on another island – Cuba. Whatever its failures, one of the great successes in Cuba since the revolution of 1959 has been the expansion of medical care to the entire citizenry of the nation, and exportation of trained physicians, both Cuban nationals (they are even on Ross’ home island of Dominica) and those from other countries educated in Cuba. The Latin American Medical School (Escuela Latino-Americana de Medicina – ELAM), which educates students from other Latin American countries, began to take students from the US a number of years ago. Unlike those attending Ross and other costly schools, US students at ELAM are virtually all from low socioeconomic backgrounds and mainly from underrepresented minority groups. Tuition is free and living expenses are paid, but there are prices for the students to pay. Admission requires a bachelor’s degree, but students are still required to spend the entire 6 years of medical school that is the usual for countries outside the US and Canada, or 7 if they need to learn Spanish first. They live in minimal dormitories, have very limited access to the internet (1-2 hours per week), and work very hard. They receive a medical education that particularly emphasizes public health, community medicine, and prevention. They promise to complete their training and enter practice in service to the communities from which they come, but it is a promise – obviously the Cubans have no way to enforce this. They receive no training in the US prior to graduation unless they are able to arrange summer observerships on their own, and are not particularly prepared for the “National Board” exams, the USMLE, that are required for US licensure and admission to US residencies. MEDICC (Medical Education in Cooperation with Cuba) , a US group that exists to support US students at ELAM and its graduates, tries to find them mentors who will help orient them to the health system in their own country, the US, teach them about applying to US residencies, and offer guidance in the study for USMLE. The first US graduates of ELAM have entered a few US residencies this year; I have met one, who is phenomenal. Other US medical educators are working with ELAM graduates and offering both advice and opportunities for volunteer training.

The US students at ELAM are the “right students”. They come from underserved backgrounds, are committed to their communities, and are willing to work very hard (perhaps ten years between bachelor’s degree and entering a residency). The question, of course, is not “how can they go to that Communist country?” but rather why are we allowing Cuba to pick up the role that our own medical education system fails to fulfill. Indeed, it would be particularly for those who oppose Cuba and socialism to develop such programs in our own country.

Senator Brownback, if we are going to start a new school in Kansas, let’s model much of it on ELAM. Let’s make it free, and recruit students from underserved communities and underrepresented minority groups, and low socioeconomic backgrounds, and teach them public health and prevention and primary care, and send them out to serve their communities of origin. In the meantime, let us at least have a “sliding scale” loan repayment program where the percent of your loan your repay is tied to your post-residency income, as well as your practice location and specialty choice.

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