The Medical School Monopoly:
Which school will break rank with the monopoly and allow an adequate flow of doctors to care for our people.
E. A Stead Jr.
June 24, 2001
Is the monopoly that the medical colleges have on how we educate our doctors driving up the cost of health care? Each day I read of failures of our health care systems. Numerous private and public agencies are studying the problem. Every study group will be dominated by faculty members from our most prestigious medical schools. These faculty members have high incomes and relatively few patients. The faculty members are reimbursed for travel, food and hotel plus a moderate fee for time away from the medical school. The doctors staying at home, caring for 99.9% of the people, do not have the time to worry about the future of health care. Their problem is how to survive this day and next month.
Most economists believe that absolute monopolies are undesirable and our laws allows them to be broken up. Many of us remember the legal actions leading to the breakup of the Rockefeller oil empire and the tobacco trust of James B Duke. Most of us do not know that the medical colleges have established an absolute monopoly. All states require applicants who will be given the privilege of practicing medicine to pass state approved qualifying examinations. At first glance this may seem reasonable. The catch is that no American citizen educated in our country can sit for the qualifying examinations until he or she has graduated from an accredited medical school. The monopoly is absolute and can not be broken nationally without changes in the laws of all states. Interestedly enough any accredited medical school already has the power to break the monopoly without breaking any of the rules. Self interest and the desire for money and power prevent an accredited medical school from moving away from the pack. In general the
leaders of the monopoly sleep well. They have never been formally challenged. After all they are so important and they are the only people with power and financial resources and time to produce change. Our monopoly for ever!!!
Why do I say that an interested accredited medical college can break the monopoly? The key is that once it has been accredited, it has the privilege of deciding how to select and educate a student body which can pass the qualifying examinations. Accordingly. it can accept students for advanced standing and award the M.D. degree whenever the school believes that the student is ready for the qualifying exams. An example from the past shows the art of the possible. About 35 years ago, before the age of space exploration, the market for Ph.D. graduates collapsed while the market for M.D. graduates remained robust. One of the Florida medical schools decided that the first two years of the Ph.D. program covered the sciences which supported medical practice and accepted the Ph.D. students into the third year class of the medical school. In my role as physician-in-chief of Duke hospital I appointed several of these former Ph.D. candidates to the resident staff. They performed as well and in some instances better than the students who had spent 4 years in the medical school.
I will present one proposal for breaking the monopoly, without changing state law, leaving it technically in place. Before I do that, let me provide some background about medical schools and their educational programs, together with more information about the nature of the monopoly.
Medical schools traditionally require 4 years of course work in an accredited college. The colleges sending the most students to medical schools are in fact close allies of the medical school monopoly. The close tie between favored colleges and the medical schools was emphasized to me first by Goodrich White, The President of Emory University. I was his 33 year old professor
of medicine and department chair. I had told a reporter of the Atlanta Constitution that the medical school did not need to require 4 years of college work. Two years were adequate. This would allow the students not interested in additional college work to graduate two years earlier and give them time for two additional years of postgraduate study either here or abroad. I gave my talk on Saturday night and to my surprise it was headlined in the Sunday morning paper. I was even more surprised to receive a six thirty call from President White. "Young man ! Meet me in my office at 7 o'clock."
He sat me in a chair and told me that I would be fired if I ever again in any way suggested that the medical students did not need 4 years of undergraduate education. 75% of the students enrolled in our undergraduate classes come here because it is well known that medical schools favor Emory graduates. Emory cannot survive if we lose the money paid by the third and fourth year premedical students. A young idealist professor became wiser and less idealist.
Most parents do not know that medical schools traditionally accept students from a relatively few colleges. Send John or Mary to most colleges and your hopes for an M.D. will not come true. This is the monopoly at work.
Medical colleges divide the 4 years of required work into two sections. The sections, preclinical and clinical, are each 2 academic years in length at most schools. The course work in the preclinical years is designed to give the students a working knowledge of the current state of the biological sciences which relate to curative and preventive medicine. The student spends 2 years memorizing scientific facts to assure that he can pass the state qualifying examination given at the end of two years.
The faculty for the preclinical years has several unsolved problems that are ignored because of the monopoly. The faculty receives some university funds but the main sources of
funding is from government research agencies, health care related industries, foundations, and the super rich like Bill Gates. To keep these sources of money flowing, the preclinical faculty put most of their energy into highly specialized research programs. Each senior faculty member has a number of students enrolled in the graduate school who are learning how to conduct independent research which will qualify them to receive the Ph.D. degree. These bright and ambitious graduate students and the research oriented preclinical professor are the team that produces the new knowledge and keep the money flowing. You do not have to be a mental giant to figure out who is dearest to the professor -medical student or graduate student.
The preclinical faculty have two additional disadvantages. Never having practiced medicine or cared for patients, they have no way of knowing what areas need special attention. They are afraid to leave out anything. What if a patient died because a lecture omitted a certain fact? More important is the lack of follow up. The preclinical faculty member knows what the student has memorized when his course ends. He has no way of knowing what is remembered a month later. As far as I know I am the only faculty member who worships and communes with the "forgetting curve" every morning before breakfast. This curve has licked every preclinical medical faculty. I am not unsympathetic. Knowledge and facts increase exponentially. They are the sum of many minds. The human brain is the extension of the output of one egg and one sperm. No wonder that the collective knowledge base changing rapidly puts great strain on a single brain which has little capacity to change its structure.
In short, protected by the monopoly, medical colleges have potentially
disinterested faculty-teaching a less than optimal mix of content.
In addition, the price of the preclinical years is more than it needs to be.
Putting the name. medical on anything quadruples the cost.
Many excellent colleges have strong science faculties who enjoy studonts
and prize the opportunity to
watch them grow in stature. Mount Holyoke college comes to mind. This excellent college could prepare its undergraduate science majors to take the first qualifying examination required by the states. Their friends going the traditional route of four years of college could remain at Mount Holyoke for an additional two years and receive a masters degree in the sciences related to clinical medicine. If the medical monopoly were broken the Mount Holyoke graduates would enter medical schools as third year students. What a saving in time and money. The best years in a doctors life are the 5 years after graduation from school. I was seven years in a white suit and I prize those years over all others.
Accepting the fact that the public does not know that no significant changes in medical care will occur until the monopoly is broken, and that our political leaders are unaware of the medical school monopoly, I next will outline a program that would allow a single medical school to bypass the monopoly. It will always be remembered as the leader that made medical care available at a reasonable price. In addition, the medical school that implements this program will be the first truly international medical school. It will have students from every country in the world. Being first is very satisfying. Why is the Duke Physician Assistant School the only unit of the Duke Medical complex that is always rated number 1? Duke was the first to establish a PA School.
The successful accredited medical school will establish an online division that allows its students to take courses at home or at work. The purpose of the online division is to allow Physician Associates and Nurse Practitioners holding a Masters degree to take the courses needed to meet the requirements of the medical school for the M .D. degree. Those up graded students would sit for the qualifying examinations along side of the graduates of the traditional 4 year school. This would allow an easy comparison of the two methods of education. If the
percentage of the upgraded students passing the examinations equaled or was greater than that of the traditional 4 year program the online program would be judged to be successful. Past experience shows that older students, knowing why they are in school and anxious to make for lost time, perform better than the younger students. The online medical school will set the requirements for admission. We suggest the following: Physician associates and nurse practitioners who are 27 years of age and have a masters degree whose course of study included one year of the sciences underlying medical practice and one year of student apprenticeship covering the areas covered by the traditional M.D. rotating internship. The final requirement is that the candidate has completed 3 years of practice under the supervision of a practicing M.D. or a group of M.D.'s. willing to write strong supporting letters.
In fairness to the medical schools all of the allied health disciplines have developed as vertical spikes and they have traditionally made no provision to allow horizontal movement. If one desires to broaden his base and climb another vertical spike one must start at the bottom of the new spike and no credit is given for any past learning.
I know from past experience that the nursing hierarchy will resent the upgrading of the nurse into the M.D. provinces but I can not think of any other way to go. Once the nurse practitioner has the M.D. degree she is free as a bird. I know of no other way for the nurse to be able to take advanced training in the medical and surgical specialties. If the nurses cannot crack the present glass ceiling under which the profession now operates, the profession will continue to experience a declining pool of applicants to nursing school. This proposal offers nurses one way to destroy the glass ceiling. I can think of no other way. I will support them in any program that will crack their glass ceiling.
To date I have found no medical school that is willing to offer online courses. Indeed the
one thing that members of the monopoly fear is that a small school might break ranks and cause the entire edifice to crumble. Small schools will never move. They had a hard time becoming accredited. They wished to lie as low as possible .
There have been many studies that have shown that physician associates operating as a part of the physicians team give services equal to that of the supervising doctors. This proposal is based on sound educational principles. It is unacceptable to the medical schools because it would destroy their monopoly sustained by state law. We intend to take our proposal to the people who can force the politicians to break the present log jam. I hope that the first medical school to implement this program will remember that the goal of this new program is to increase the number of practicing doctors in rural and underserved areas as rapidly and cheaply as possible. I would start the on line program with 20 students who would spend one week on the medical school campus in the summer before they matriculated in the online program. The online dean with the help of the traditional medical school faculty would determine what additional courses each of the twenty on line students needed to be able to pass the qualifying examinations. These students could take both of the qualifying examinations in the same week. The three years of practice: during which time the online students cared for patients every day would give our on line students at sitting for the qualifying examinations clinical skills and knowledge far beyond that possessed by students graduating from the usual on campus four year medical school. I will let the readers figure out the amount of money saved by taking the online course.