the scouting combine…medical style

Monday, February 20, 2012

In the middle of February when pro basketball, hockey and golf are in full swing, it will be the NFL scouting combine that will make headlines. The decisions made by coaches and general managers about the athletic potential of college players may affect the future of their teams for years to come. Who knew that the same courtship is playing out in teaching hospitals around the country. Medical students have sent out applications in hopes of finding a coveted spot to pursue their residency training and now it’s interview time so that residency directors can put a face and personality to the credentials in the application.

It takes a long time to be able to hang a shingle and start caring for patients. After an undergraduate college degree, there is four years of medical school and then comes residency training. For primary care like family practice, pediatrics and internal medicine, it’s three years of post-graduate but that can extend to seven years or more for some specialties like cardiothoracic or neurosurgery. In medical school, students spend a few weeks rotating through each specialty, not only learning the medicine, but hopefully finding a passion.

While the students try to impress, residency directors hope that the students they recruit will fit well into their training programs. Not only do they have to be bright, (most are, they made it through medical school) but also have a caring spirit, a team mentality and willingness to fit into that particular hospital’s culture. A bad fit can cause grief that may last many years. When next year arrives and a new class comes to interview, meeting an unhappy resident can poison recruiting for a long while.

There is a third group that has skin in the recruiting game and that’s the local community. It seems that residents grow to like the area where they spend years in training. They develop relationships, have kids, join churches, synagogue and mosques and become part of the community. That makes it hard to leave if an opportunity to practice locally makes itself available. Newly graduated medical students who move to town to complete a residency program, may be the same doctors who will look after generations of people in the surrounding area.

Just like the NFL, the medical student visit isn’t the end of the recruiting dance. Once football teams have decided who they want, there is the draft to navigate and Roger Goodell stands at the podium and announces who goes where. In the medical education world, there is Match Day. After all the applications and visits, the medical student sits down and lists, in order of preference, what specialty training they would like to pursue and where they would like to attend. The residency directors also make their own preference list. On Match Day, a computer figures it out and decides people’s destinies. For those medical students who don’t match, there are residency spots that didn’t fill. And since there are more residency slots than there are newly mined doctors, the unfilled spots are also prime opportunities for foreign medical graduates to advance their training.

There is plenty of pressure for college athletes to perform at the scouting combine. Only 328 are invited with the expectation that they are the best players out there. It will take a few years to see whether they rise to their potential and stardom. The same time frame will determine if the medical student draft was able to produce capable, caring doctors that will serve patients well. The only difference is that the NFL makes headlines while medical training continues in relative obscurity.

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