AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
One of the nation's top medical schools has quietly been experimenting with a different way to admit students. Many of the doctors in training at Mount Sinai in New York majored in areas other than science, like English or history. They also didn't take the MCAT, the medical school admission test. Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News checks in on how one school is trying to remake pre-med.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Eight nervous-looking first-year Mount Sinai medical students shove their desks around to prepare for class on this Wednesday morning. The class is the art and science of medicine. It's the most important one they take, according to their professor, Dr. David Muller.
DAVID MULLER: And it's where they learn all of their clinical skills.
ROVNER: Today, they'll practice doing physicals by examining each other.
MULLER: Yeah. They're actually going to go through that when they...
ROVNER: You can't tell just by looking which of these students came through the nontraditional track, and that's the goal. Muller is Dean of Medical Education at Mount Sinai. Back in 1987, he says, then-Dean, Nathan Kase, was concerned about what some called pre-med syndrome. That's the idea that the need for straight A's and high MCAT scores actually produced subpar doctors. Students were too single-minded.
MULLER: He really had a firm belief that you couldn't be a good doctor and a well-rounded doctor and relate to patients and communicate with them unless you really had a good grounding in the liberal arts.
ROVNER: So the school began accepting humanities majors after their second year of college. They continue to follow their nonscientific interests for the remainder of their college careers, and Mount Sinai takes care of teaching them the science they need, which is often not the science studied in pre-med programs. Muller says it's the exact opposite of his traditional pre-med experience in the 1980s.
MULLER: When I went to medical school, I was cookie-cutter. We were much more content to just march lockstep through a process that was predetermined for us.
ROVNER: Studies have shown that the humanities in medicine students, or HuMeds, as they're called, are just as successful in med school as any other student. At the same time, eliminating the need to take the medical school admission test can remove a barrier for some students from less privileged backgrounds.
MULLER: It's just an unfair bar to set, and it excludes people from medical school and from medicine that we desperately need.
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ROVNER: Muller showed up to an end-of-year party in the student lounge hosted by the Student Council.
MULLER: Hey, how are you?
ROVNER: A thank you to the teachers and administration.
MULLER: The long, long, long line is for samosas.
ROVNER: One of those in line to fill his plate with Indian food is John Rhee, a second-year student who graduated with a public policy degree from Cornell. He says he rarely feels different from his classmates.
JOHN RHEE: There's sometimes, like, a joke that goes around, like, oh, that person's such a HuMed.
ROVNER: What characterizes a HuMed?
RHEE: I guess what you would, like, typically think a HuMed is interested in - classical studies, literature buff or something. But I would say, like, majority of the time, there's no distinction at all.
ROVNER: Virginia Flatow is a fellow second-year student. She majored in psychology, but she was also on the debate team at Bates College in Maine. That meant lots of traveling to tournaments she said she never would've been able to do if she'd been on the classical pre-med track. She says it hasn't held her back.
Did you feel prepared when you got here to med school even though you hadn't taken the MCATs?
VIRGINIA FLATOW: Yeah, definitely. There are very few courses - maybe I can think of one off the top of my head - where doing a lot of science in college helps you. But the rest of it is just a matter of how well do you study?
ROVNER: Flatow agrees with a growing number of medical educators, for example, that organic chemistry is irrelevant for medical school and that its difficulty discourages many students who might otherwise make excellent doctors.
FLATOW: And I know so many people who took one semester of organic chemistry, dropped pre-med, were like, I'm never doing this again. I mean, my brother was one of them.
ROVNER: But these nontraditional students serve yet another role. They round out what could otherwise could be a class full of science wonks. Harsh Chawla, for example, majored in biology.
HARSH CHAWLA: I think just the cross-fertilization of ideas that goes on between people from an exclusively scientific background and people from, you know, a less science background, I think ultimately, everyone benefits from it.
ROVNER: The program has worked so well that Mount Sinai has expanded it to include any major, not just humanities. Eventually, these students will make up half the class.
MULLER: So general appearance, vital signs, skin...
ROVNER: David Muller, back in his classroom, goes over what students need to look for. And he encourages them to question, something, he says, comes more naturally to this generation than it did to his.
MULLER: Just stop me, and say, what does that mean or what's that little squiggle there?
ROVNER: So here's a question for Muller. What would he have pursued in college had he not headed straight on to the science track?
MULLER: Literature - English literature. I read voraciously as a kid, and that almost came to a complete standstill in college because there was just no time to breathe.
ROVNER: But can pursuing different interests really make a better doctor?
MULLER: People who look at the same problems through different lenses will make us better in the long run. Now, can I prove that that's going to be the case? No, but I like to believe that it is.
ROVNER: And at least this med school is following through on that belief. For NPR News, I'm Julie Rovner.
CORNISH: Julie Rovner is with our partner Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.
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