Image: Tiffany Williams
Orlin Wagner  /  AP
UMKC medical student Tiffany Williams stands in an examination room at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 18.
updated 12/6/2004 12:16:15 PM ET 2004-12-06T17:16:15

At an age when most medical students are learning to distinguish between the ligaments, muscles and bones of the back or absorbing vast amounts of anatomical data with the help of a cadaver, Tiffany Williams has already sent out a dozen applications for residencies in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Almost six years removed from high school, she expects to graduate in May from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Medical School with a combined degree in medicine and liberal arts.

“I have a friend who’s 28, and he’s doing the same thing I’m doing now,” she said. “He won’t graduate until he’s 30, and I’m graduating at 24.”

After high school graduation in 1999, Williams wrestled over whether she should take off across the country to prestigious Duke University or head to the public medical school, which was closer to home and one of about 30 medical schools in the country that accept students directly out of high school.

It was difficult to turn down Duke.

“It’s the whole name thing,” she said. “It was hard for me to get past that and realize that this is not about the name, and that it’s about what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

She had a passion to become a doctor, but the prospect of increased competition for medical school four years down the road drove her decision to choose UMKC, whose six-year program receives about 600 applications for its 100 openings each year. The medical school admission test, or MCAT, isn’t a requirement but students from Missouri must score at least 26 on their ACT or have a 1,200 SAT score; 28 or higher on the ACT for students from other states.

“The odds are against people getting into medical school after four years of college. I heard a lot of stories about people who didn’t score high on the MCATs and who did well on their courses,” she said.

Cutting costs and time
The University of Missouri-Kansas City Medical School is one of the more expensive ones in the country, with tuition for state residents set at about $25,000 a year, twice that for out-of-state students. By comparison, the average tuition and fees at public and private U.S. medical schools in 2002 were $14,577 and $30,960 respectively, according to the American Medical Student Association.

With the rising costs of college and medical school, six-year programs can be a good way for students to cut costs, said M. Brownell Anderson of the Association of American Medical Colleges, a physician education advocacy group.

“In some ways (six-year programs are) going to be more important as the costs for medical school continue to increase,” Anderson said, “and medical schools are going to have to find ways to produce physicians cost effectively.”

Joan Jacobson, advanced education counselor at Shawnee Mission South High School in suburban Johnson County, Kan., said the savings may be attractive, but it’s the rare 18-year-old who fits comfortably into a six-year medical program.

“It takes a certain kind of very intense, focused student because what they’re literally doing is putting eight years of med school into six,” Jacobson said. “When they ask me what I think, I say first of all, ’What’s your hurry?”’

Even though she felt mature enough at 18 to enter medical school, Williams found more challenges in the program than she expected. Short of college, she said, nothing could have prepared her for long hours of study, juggling labs and lectures and poring over armloads of reading material.

Wrong path for most
Mahauganee Shaw, 23, had dreamed of attending the UMKC medical school since eighth grade in St. Louis and thought she was mentally prepared when she entered the program in 1999.

“I was there two and a half years,” Shaw said. “I withdrew twice, once after the completion of my full second year. And then I rescinded my withdrawal because I wasn’t completely sure.”

One semester later, she had no interest in studying human anatomy or chemistry.

Shaw, who now works in the campus life department at Dillard University in New Orleans, said a medical program is no place to decide if you want to be a doctor. “There is a certain type who can be extremely successful in that program, someone who knows from the start that medicine is where you want to be, no doubt about.” missing word?

Five years after Henry Lin, 22, of Fort Wayne, Ind., entered the program thinking he would try it for a year, he’s developed a sensitivity that he said might have been stifled in other medical programs.

“The one bad rep we have here is that we’re not as strong in the medical science classes,” Lin said. “But we’re strong in the clinical exposure. We have been in clinics, seeing our own patients since the third year, so we get four years of clinical exposure. That’s about twice as much as other medical schools, and it’s a huge difference.”

But not everyone subscribes to the belief that obtaining a medical degree and getting a jump on a career, a few years ahead of your peers, is more efficient than delaying medical school until after college.

“Things as simple as having the time to attend a football game, or go out with friends and having summers off to travel to Tibet are things I wouldn’t have had in a six-year program,” said Sujay Kansagra, 24, a third-year medical student at Duke.

Williams’ 28-year-old friend, Aaron Horne, expects to graduate from the University of Chicago in 2006 with a combined MBA/M.D. degree, confident that an undergraduate degree in public policy and his experiences working as a consultant and pursuing other interests will make him a better doctor.

“I’m not saying that someone right out of high school can’t get there,” Horne said. “But I have learned so much more in how to relate to patients.”

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