Why The ‘Best’ Medical Schools May Not Always Produce the Best Doctors


Being average has never appealed to you. Whether you’re focused on school, an athletic competition, or something else, you always strive to achieve your best. It’s an admirable mindset, given your goal of becoming a physician. You’re determined to become an excellent doctor.

You already have the necessary building blocks to become a great physician. Now you just want to make sure you enroll in a program that can help you complete your journey. While it may be tempting to search online for lists of the best medical schools, you might want to rethink that strategy.

Many phenomenal doctors obtained their MDs from programs that might not be the most familiar. Furthermore, medical schools with great reputations can have some shortcomings. Get ready for a lesson in why there’s sometimes a mismatch between the best doctors and the supposed best medical schools.

Why is there a mismatch?

There are few reasons why the “best” medical schools might not always educate tomorrow’s greatest physicians. It’s certainly worth exploring a little more.

Issue #1: Conflicting definitions

Let’s start with a look at what defines a great physician. Many regional publications release their list of top physicians every year. New York Magazine, for example, compiles one based on peer nominations that focus on the doctor’s professional qualifications and patient skills.

We can also look to physician review websites. Healthgrades is a popular one that includes basic information on a physician’s education and background as well as patient reviews. What factors do patients consider when evaluating doctors? The physician’s trustworthiness, explanation of conditions, and ability to answer questions. Once again, you can see that patient skills are incredibly important.

While evaluations might seem too subjective, there’s research to suggest patient satisfaction improves outcomes. One analysis that included 47 studies found that patients who trust their physicians experience fewer symptoms and have a better quality of life.

The characteristics used to select the top medical schools simply don’t align. Programs considered the best typically have the highest average GPA, the strongest MCAT scores, and the lowest acceptance rates. There’s never any mention of these schools identifying or developing patient skills.

A critique published in Academic Medicine points out that one of the most popular medical school rankings is too rigid in the attributes used to assess quality and could even be skewed due to low survey response rates. The article suggests it would be more appropriate to consider schools’ clinical assessments, commitment to diversity, and emphasis on service when judging them.

Issue #2: Problematic student evaluations

Because the supposed best medical schools tend to have the strictest admissions standards, it’s possible they’re rejecting many students who would be excellent physicians. Not every good doctor had stellar grades from the start. In some cases, students who started medical school on the low end of academic spectrum ended up outperforming their peers on their first licensing exam.

The way students are evaluated in medical school can also be an issue, even if the intention is to emphasize patient skills. According to an article that reviewed how medical schools assessed students during the 20th century, most evaluations had very little to do with how well students worked with patients. The students’ clinical skills grades were mostly determined by how well they remembered case presentations and discussions.

What does lead to great physicians?

If the best medical schools don’t always yield the best doctors, what does? Admitting students who have the capacity to be great physicians is a start. Given the importance of doctor–patient interaction, medical schools would likely benefit from seeking students with a clinical aptitude from the very beginning.

Implementing holistic medical school applicant reviews is a step in the right direction. Holistic reviews consider nonacademic factors, like how well you communicate and your ability to overcome adversity. The goal isn’t to ignore GPA and MCAT scores, but to consider them in the context of your personal experiences.

Another benefit of implementing holistic reviews is that it leads to greater diversity. The link between greater physician diversity and improved patient outcomes is well documented, too, with research showing that minority and non-English-speaking patients receive better care when they have access to minority and non-English-speaking practitioners.

How do you find programs that employ holistic reviews?

There’s been a growing push for holistic reviews, but not every medical school has been quick to adopt recommendations from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Some programs still immediately reject students solely based on their GPA and MCAT scores. Furthermore, the AAMC encourages every institution to craft a holistic review around their mission. That clearly leaves a lot of room for variation.

The best way to get a sense of a school’s review process is to speak with current students and graduates. They can answer your questions and provide firsthand insight into what their admissions experience was like.

And don’t forget to do a little bit of research on student demographics for each school you’re considering. You can identify if a school truly values diversity by taking a look at how well different populations are represented.

Keep an open mind

Perhaps searching for a general list of the best medical schools isn’t such a good idea after all. You want to make sure you attend a program that sees your potential and focuses on developing the clinical skills crucial for positive patient outcomes. This means you may need to cast a wider net.

If you’ve dismissed international programs in the past, you might want to take another look. There are some quality programs worth considering in the Caribbean. Learn how to identify the best programs by taking a look at our Guide To Choosing A Caribbean Medical School.

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