The charter classes of four new medical schools graduated this year, but that's just the beginning. Over the next five years, 11 more schools will award M.D.s to their first classes, which some say is the result of a national call to address a shortage of physicians.
"This was really the first batch of new schools in about 10 years," says Barbara Barzansky, co-secretary of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which accredits medical schools. "The four have done just fine. We're certainly keeping an eye out as we go through the process for the others."
The process Barzansky references is the accreditation process. A school cannot reach full accreditation until its first class graduates. But schools at various stages of the accreditation process can take applications, interview candidates and teach soon-to-be doctors.
Students need to graduate from an accredited school to do a medical residency in the U.S. and to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination.
These new schools give prospective medical students an option thousands before did not have: applying to a new school that many in medicine know little about. If admitted, these students could forge a path for those that follow, or have the added burden of being the first.
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Students should consider several factors when figuring out if a new school will be a good fit, experts say. Asking the following questions may help them make that decision.
1. How large are classes? Students interested in learning with a small group of students may find a new school more appealing. "Most new medical schools start at half of their target size," says Steven J. Scheinman, dean of Commonwealth Medical College in Pennsylvania. The school's first class had 57 students graduate, a number comparable to the other 2013 charter classes.
In August, 100 students will start at Commonwealth, which had its first students start in 2009. That same year, the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center welcomed its charter class of 40 students. This fall, 100 students will start at the university.
University of Central Florida's College of Medicine graduated 36 students this year, and more than three times that many will start in August.
2. What is the relationship like between the school and local hospitals? Medical students often do clinical rotations - where students spend weeks at a time learning about a specialty - in their third or fourth years. At newer schools, it's important for prospective students to gauge if there is a strong relationship between the school and the hospitals at which rotations will take place, says Kachiu Lee, a dermatology resident at Brown University and adviser at MedSchoolCoach, which guides prospective medical students through the admissions process.
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"A lot of physicians who are at community hospitals may not work with students regularly. They might be used to working with junior physicians who are already trained in medicine or working with a nursing student," says Lee.
Students can ask: What hospitals are affiliated with the school? Do residents currently work at those hospitals?
"If residents do then that means that the attending physicians there are used to being in a teaching and mentoring type of role," she says.
3. What specialties does the school support? Students who know which specialties interest them may have an additional factor to weigh.
"It's also important to ask whether the medical school has resources or has a department for you to rotate through to support those interests," says Lee.
If a student wants to go into plastic surgery or dermatology, for example, a school without resources in those fields may not be a good fit.
"It might be harder for you to get those exposures versus someone who goes to a medical school that has a very well established department in those areas," she says.
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4. What opportunities are there for networking? For students in the school's first set of classes, there may not be any alumni to ask for career help after graduating.
"There are no resources. That's why it is a risk," says Deborah C. German, vice president of medical affairs and dean at UCF's College of Medicine. "The students really have to have a pioneering spirit."
During school, new students may find themselves in a bind when there are no second-, third- or fourth-year medical students to ask about a difficult assignment.
If there are a few current students at the school, prospective M.D. candidates should ask them, "How close do you feel to the faculty?" says Scheinman of Commonwealth Medical College, noting that a student's relationship with faculty is especially critical in this kind of environment.
Faculty members at Commonwealth were very receptive to helping its first class, says Charlie Karcutskie, who graduated from the school this year. Because his class was so small, "it gave us more time with faculty," he says. "There was a lot of support."
He recognizes that, as German said, he and his classmates took a huge risk by pursuing a new school.
"It was scary in the beginning," he says. Unlike other medical school candidates, he didn't have the chance to speak with current students about their experience. "You didn't have anything to go off of."
Though for him, the risk paid off.
"I got my first choice of residency," he says. He is a surgical resident at the Jackson Memorial Medical Center at the University of Miami. "I wouldn't change a thing."
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