Doctoring a different path

Is a traditional science degree still necessary for medical school?

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Traditionally medical students exclusively came from science backgrounds. However, due to evolving admission requirements for medical schools, the background of these students is at its most diverse.

Dr. John Boyd, an assistant professor of neurology and critical care at Queen’s took a slightly unconventional academic path to get where he is today.

Boyd completed his undergraduate degree at Lakehead University, where he started off as a Chemistry major. After he ended up on academic probation, Boyd realized he couldn’t maintain the GPA needed to get into medical school with the required math courses.  

He instead switched into a Psychology major.

Psychology was a better fit for Boyd, because he was able to enjoy some science classes without having the pressure of succeeding in the mathematical elements involved in science courses. He ended up graduating Lakehead but still didn’t have the GPA to get into medical school. Instead, he pursued a masters in Neuroscience, which he finished in a year and a half. 

Boyd currently works as a clinician-scientist at Queen’s, practicing neurology and intensive care medicine. 

“There isn’t anything that you learn in any undergraduate program that prepares you for anything you do in medical school,” Boyd said. “My graduate school experience is what prepared me for medical school." 

While Life Science and other science heavy majors are very informative of things that you will learn in medical school, Boyd said the knowledge you gain comes at a cost. “I think it is completely unfair that students work hard and get 60s and 70s when they could be getting better marks in a different major.”

At Queen’s, the Life Sciences program is the most similar to the curriculum taught at medical school. According to the Life Sciences website, “a large portion of the graduates of this program choose a career in medicine or graduate studies and research in health science.”

While it’s the self-designated path to medical school, succeeding in Life Sciences is no easy feat. It has the reputation of being one of the most rigorous programs at the University, understandable considering the program is often to prepare students for the struggles of medical school. 

Dr. Michael Kawaja, associate undergraduate dean of Life Sciences and Biochemistry, provided The Journal with some statistics he shows to first year students interested in the graduate medical school program.

From the Queen’s School of Medicine class of 2018, 40-45 percent of students came from a background in Life Sciences or Biomedical Sciences. Another 30 percent came from traditional science backgrounds like biology and chemistry.

According to Kawaja, these trends continue from year to year, with potential fluctuations of a few more arts, engineering and commerce students. 

These statistics are not indicative of other medical school acceptance rates though, because Queen’s medical school is still very traditional in its admissions, requiring the MCAT and recommending at least half a semester of a science laboratory class and other traditional science courses needed to do well on the exam.

In the past few years, many medical schools have started accepting non-science students — the Faculty of Medicine at McGill, Northern Ontario School of Medicine and University of Ottawa no longer require the MCAT, having made changes to the requirements as recently as 2010. 

This has allowed for people of all different undergraduate backgrounds to have the opportunity to become a doctor. Dr. John Boyd’s thoughts echo the debates happening at major medical schools over whether it’s more important to judge an applicant’s maturity and judgment skills then their test scores and GPAs.  

According to Dr. Leslie Mackenzie, associate professor and director of an Anatomical Sciences M. Sc. Program at Queen’s, medical schools are increasingly giving equal opportunity and consideration to applicants from all different undergraduate backgrounds.

Due to the recent changes to the science requirements and pre requisites, Mackenzie said, “the first term in many medical schools is focused on basic sciences”, adding that “it brings all students to the same level."

“The biggest change, in my opinion, is the holistic approach meaning less science and more diversity”, Mackenzie told The Journal. The changes to admissions, he said, are “all targeted in hopes to identify the best candidates.”

McGill, UBC, University of Alberta and the University of Montreal have implemented Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs) into their applications, a format which began at McMaster. 

MMIs are “short, structured interview stations used to assess non-cognitive qualities including cultural sensitivity, maturity, teamwork, empathy, reliability and communication skills” according to the official website. 

One of the biggest components of the MMIs focus on ethical dilemmas that a doctor could face, which point towards the maturity and understanding, or lack thereof, of a potential medical school student. 

One sample scenario from UBC Medical School is “an 18-year-old man is diagnosed to have suspected bacterial meningitis. He refuses therapy and returns to the college dormitory. What should a physician do in this situation?”

Non-cognitive based testing has been slowly opening up the doors to people with various undergraduate degrees with the hope that it creates a more diverse interesting pool of students.

As Boyd put it, “to be a good clinician you need to be mature and don’t just need to be memorizing metabolic rates.”

The shift begs the question: if Canadian medical schools don’t require an undergraduate background in biomedical sciences, why bother with such difficult undergraduate science programs?

Nicole Costa, a recent Queen’s graduate, always had the intention of becoming a doctor. After having medical-related setbacks in first year, she changed from planning on going into Biochemistry or Life Sciences to majoring in English due to the fact that she couldn’t keep up with homework or take her final exams. 

“While I was disappointed that I couldn’t continue in science, I was also okay with it because I didn’t feel as if it was bettering me as a person in any way,” Costa recalled.

Throughout all of this, her goal of getting into medical school never waivered. 

“I felt betrayed by the school system that no one told me that I didn’t need to do science to get into medical school,” Costa said. She had seen lots of academic advisors and they all had the same type of answer. It was finally her therapist who suggested to her that she didn’t need the science degree to succeed. 

Costa is currently studying to take her MCAT, which she has been preparing for since 2013. Even though it isn’t required everywhere, it opens up all the options. Teaching herself worked really well for Costa she said, because she could work at her own pace. 

She is currently getting a masters degree in Health Management at St. Lawrence College to work off her student debt and continue to prepare herself for the MCAT. 

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