Medical School, Part One: Feeling Bad for the Patient

Long ago I attended medical school in the midwest.  It was a public “University Of” school that enjoyed an excellent reputation, especially amongst the members of the school itself.  At the time (this was the early part of the last century), they claimed to be “the number six medical school in the country.”  I have no idea how they came up with this fact.  Suffice to say, they have spent every moment of the last one hundred years striving to overtake every institution above them on that imaginary list.IMG_1139

There was a unique dynamic in my midwestern state when it came to medical education.  In addition to “The University Of,” there was also a long established medical school in the city, as well as a brand new upstart medical school at the State University.  The State University already had a well respected veterinary school and one of the best osteopathic medical schools in the nation.  This fact led the brilliant State University administrators, faced with the task of naming the newly accredited allopathic medical school in a hip and distinctive way, to call it “The School of Human Medicine.”  I’m not sure what organisms the administrators thought their graduates from the osteopathic school were treating up to that point, by I’m assuming something distinct from animals or people–aliens, I guess.

This triumvirate of medical schools led to a great deal of competition on multiple levels:  for patients to care for in order to train their students, for prestigious residencies once their students graduated, and faculty.  It was a constant war, with faculty members being stolen back and forth amongst the three schools.  In response to this competition, each school developed its own unique personality.  “The University Of” simply made sure that everyone knew that they were the best and the most prestigious.  For a while they would spout the tag line “The Harvard of the Midwest,” until one marketing savant realized they could do better.  They then claimed that Harvard was just “The University Of” of the East.  You get the idea.  The urban medical school prided itself on its gritty reputation of training “real doctors,” emphasizing their large caseload inherent in a predominantly indigent population.  The State University emphasized their new, modern teaching approach. The curriculum incorporated an emphasis on compassionate care and alternate, New Age type approaches. The teaching method was also new and different.  Instead of the classic lecture for two years followed by two years of closely supervised clinical experience epitomized by the “University Of” format (and Harvard, of course), they developed a computer based, “teach yourself to be a doctor” curriculum.  It was very ahead of its time.  It was also a disaster.  The graduates of this system could always be identified by their inability to  pronounce any medical term over two syllables correctly, since they only interacted with a computer screen for two years.  They were cruelly mocked when they finally hit the wards.

This dynamic was exemplified in a joke popular in the state at the time.  A recent graduate from each of the medical schools is asked to evaluate a patient in the emergency room.  The patient is a seventeen-year old male with a one day history of worsening right lower quadrant abdominal pain, nausea, and fever.  Physical exam demonstrates exquisite tenderness over the appendix.  The first student, a recent graduate of “The University Of,” says, “I’m quite familiar with this type of patient.  I have read over a dozen journal articles on just this problem and given a Grand Rounds lecture on this exact condition.  This patient has acute appendicitis and needs an emergency appendectomy.”  “And how would you do that operation?” the “U of” graduate is asked by the professor.  He shrugs.  “No clue,” he says, “we don’t actually go to the OR.  That’s just technician stuff.”  The second student, from the urban training program, snorts derisively.  “The dude’s got a bad problem in his gut.  I’ve never read anything in a book about this, but I’ve taken care of twenty of these.  I need to get him to the operating room.”  “What’s your preoperative diagnosis?” the professor asks.  The urban graduate shrugs.  “Who knows?  Doesn’t matter.  Never let the skin of the patient stand between you and your diagnosis, that’s what we always say.”  Finally, the “State University” graduate is asked his opinion.  He looks distinctly uncomfortable when asked for his diagnosis.  Finally, he answers, “To be honest, I’ve never read anything about a patient like this.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never even encountered a patient with this problem during my education.  However, I do feel really, really bad for him. And I hope he gets better soon.”

4 thoughts on “Medical School, Part One: Feeling Bad for the Patient

  1. Hi Dr. Geller! This is Argante, CRNA from Mather/St. Charles a few years back. Becky Griffett works with me in cardiac surgery now at NYU and told me about your blog. Looking forward to checking it out! Hope all is well with you. Take care.

  2. I always enjoy your revealing medical posts, Evan. The reality of medical practice – as with everything else – is so different from the reassuring front medicine presents to the public. I would describe the three training techniques you describe here as theoretical, hands on, and well to the left.

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