The process of “becoming” a physician is a journey that starts for each of us at a different point.
For me, it started with a traumatic event — a life-threatening injury that I suffered in the sixth grade after a fall through a window, which resulted in substantial blood loss and progressed to hemorrhagic shock. I did not fully understand my proximity to an untimely death until many years later as a surgical intern on the trauma surgery team at Tampa General Hospital at the University of South Florida.
By then, I was far along on my individual journey, one that included catalysts as well as areas of struggle and achievement. Without question, those who are making this journey during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing challenges unlike any in the history of medicine. Many have had disruptions in their undergraduate education or gap year in preparation for medical school. They have had disruption in their ability to take the MCAT® exam. And those who are applying to medical school this year will likely face additional disruptions, through virtual rather than in-person interviews.
But I would like you to know that however different the process is this year, it is being shared by premed students all over the United States. One of the advantages to the current way in which most medical schools admit students is the use of a holistic admissions process to decrease emphasis on any specific test (MCAT) or GPA and rather emphasize an individual’s journey to becoming a physician and the distance traveled in getting there. Many medical school applicants will have poignant stories related to their respective journeys and, undoubtedly, most will include specifics related to the current pandemic. These stories should be included in applications as a sign of strength and resilience. And while it is true that many applicants will have missed some opportunities for in-person clinical or research experiences during the pandemic, most of the premed students I advise have taken this time to connect and grow in other meaningful ways that will contribute to their career paths and their application processes.
For those of you applying to medical school this year, I would encourage you to think about the application process as a journey that will require perseverance and, for some, perhaps another application cycle. If medicine is your passion, embrace this path forward as well as the experience — and always keep learning and growing as you move forward.
In my years as dean of the school of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, I frequently share the following insights, which are even more pertinent during these challenging times:
First, the calling to become a healer and a physician is one of the greatest endeavors that a human can embark upon. It has been this way since the dawn of time and in every culture and every era. That journey is enriched by the special trust and bond that occurs between patient and doctor, and it is strengthened by the expectation of humanism, empathy, and social justice that is at the core of medicine. I would encourage all physicians-to-be, wherever the path takes you, to ensure that social justice is rooted in your outlook for your career and — more broadly — your communities. As physicians, you will have the ability and opportunity to change not only your patients’ outcomes but also those of your communities and the broader world.
Second, the path you are choosing will include struggle — but also enormous reward. The struggles will include the choices between dedication to patients or time with family. They will include the enormous difficulty around maintaining well-being in the face of many pressures, demands, and illnesses. They will include finding paths to increased health equity when so many disparities occur in our current society and systems of providing care. The rewards will include the ability to put someone’s arm back together (if you are a surgeon) so that they can live life to its fullest. They will include helping to heal other parts of the human anatomy in different specialties as well as knitting together hearts and souls in a rewarding and lasting way. And, in times when your skills and the current knowledge available are not able to offer a cure, you will be with your patients and their families at an incredibly vulnerable time — but also a time when your words, touch, and emotion can provide bridges to healing of another sort.
Finally, the process of “becoming” a physician is a journey that should never end. It certainly does not end when the medical school dean hands out a diploma bearing the initials “MD” behind one’s name for the first time. It does not end after residency or even when one feels they have “mastered” the craft of their respective discipline. With changing technology and information — medical knowledge now doubles about every 20 to 30 days (a significant increase from approximately every five years when I was in medical school!) — physicians can never be complacent. Even in retirement, we will always be “doctors,” possessing the responsibilities that come with the title and continuing to make those around us, and the world, a better place. For those of you just now beginning your journey, I hope it is successful — and I look forward to the day, in the not-too-distant future, when we will be physician-colleagues.
Joseph Kerschner, MD, is dean of the school of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, provost and executive vice president of the Medical College of Wisconsin, and chair of the AAMC Board of Directors.