At Mount Sinai Med School, Humanities Students Can Be Doctors, Too

study finds humanities students perform as well as pre-med peers

By Jillian Scharr
|  Friday, Jul 30, 2010  |  Updated 5:30 PM EDT
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At Mount Sinai Med School, Humanities Students Can Be Doctors, Too

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From studying for the MCATs to the infamously difficult organic chemistry classes, not to mention physics, math and biology, pre-med undergraduate programs are notoriously stressful.  It's considered a necessary step on the path to becoming a doctor--at most medical schools.

The Mount Sinai School of Medicine on the Upper East Side, however, accepts a small number of humanities students into its medical program each year. It's part of a special program which allows "HuMed" (humanities medical) students to become doctors as well.

These students never took the MCATs.  And yet they perform about as well as their traditional pre-med colleagues, according to a recent study of Mount Sinai Medical School students published in the Academic Medicine journal.

"Students without the traditional premedical preparation performed at a level equivalent to their premedical classmates," the study concluded.

The only "statistically significant difference" between HuMed and pre-med students was that the HuMeds were more likely to pursue careers in psychiatry upon graduation.  In the study of 85 HuMed students and 606 pre-med students between 2004 and 2009, 14 percent of HuMed students pursued careers in psychiatry, versus only 5.6 percent of pre-med students.

There were other slight trends, however.  For example, HuMed students were slightly less likely to pursue careers in surgical subspecialties or anesthesiology.

And the report notes two concerns:  HuMed students tend to have lower scores on the USMLE Step 1 test.  They also more often take non-scholarly leaves of absence, suggesting they may be questioning their career choices or struggling with academics more than their pre-med peers.  The report does continue, however, that the slightly lower test scores "seems unlikely to affect their clinical skills or to keep them from securing high-quality residency training programs."  Mount Sinai also encourages students to take a year off between graduating college and beginning medical school.

The report was co-authored by Dr. Nathan Kase, who founded the Mount Sinai HuMed program and currently serves as a professor and dean emeritus.  "The default pathway is: well, how did they do on the MCAT? How did they do on organic chemistry? What was their grade-point average? ...That excludes a lot of kids," he told the New York Times. "It makes science into an obstacle rather than something that is an insight into the biology of human disease."

 Mount Sinai is one of only a few medical schools in the country with similar programs, although doctors and teachers have debated the traditional premedical requirements for decades.

Supporters of the HuMed program say that "the cultivation of true scientific curiosity is diminished" in standard pre-med programs.  Students, all too aware of the fierce competition in medical school application, "cram for grades without appreciating the science being studied, and their retention of the information is only to be transient," according to the report.

"As the successful academic outcomes of students from the HuMed program illustrate, it is clear that relieving students of the burdens of traditional pre-med requirements in college will provide them the opportunity to pursue multiple and more diverse paths to success in medical school," the report concludes.  

This may be Kase tooting his own horn -- he was dean of the medical school when the HuMed program began -- but it's hard to argue with the facts. Mount Sinai's HuMed students were more likely than fellow pre-med students to score in the top 25% of their class, and to receive an 'outstanding' or 'excellent' on their Medical School Performance Evaluations, according to the report. 

Undergraduates can apply to Mount Sinai Medical School's "HuMed" program in their sophomore or junior year of college while pursuing a degree in the humanities or social sciences.  They spend the summer after their junior year at Mount Sinai taking courses covering the basics of organic chemistry (so you can't escape it entirely) and medical topics such as bioethics and health policy.

"The benefits accrued by liberalizing undergraduate premedical education so that students may focus on the humanities and social sciences are significant," the report concludes.  To put it more monosyllabically, Mount Sinai's HuMed students have shown that they can bring a strong non-scientific background to medical school and graduate with just as much success as their pre-med peers.

The full report is available here.

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