the medical draft

Monday, April 29, 2013

The annual NFL draft generates a myriad of emotion for all those affected. Players, who have trained for years in hope of impressing scouts and coaches, see their work graded based upon where they are picked. Those coaches and managers are charged with finding the best young players available to help their team improve, but their grade won’t happen until the end of the next season. The fans are always invested in the waxing and waning fortunes of their team, though the young stars they covet will likely be within a few years. The average NFL player’s career lasts only 3½ years or about 60 games.

While everybody analyzes the NFL, another draft that might have more personal implications just finished. Every spring, graduating medical students and teaching hospitals conclude a dance very similar to the NFL with its college players. There is no combine where the new docs congregate to be tested and measured, but there are visits to potential hospitals and their residency training programs. Not only do the medical students check out the hospital and the city, but the residency directors decide who might be a good fit for their training program,.

After a winter and spring of this dating song and dance, each side makes their choices and the National Residency Matching Program computer goes into action, trying to match the doctor with their highest choice of hospital and the hospital with their highest choice of new grad. Imagine the NFL allowing the players a choice for what team they would like to play and the teams having to list all the players they would consider, depending upon who is available.

While it may seem far removed from the fan, these new doctors may have a profound effect on their new home and community. Their training will keep them around for at least the average career of a football player with primary care residencies lasting a minimum of 3 years and others stretching to seven years or longer for a thoracic or neurosurgeon. These will be the front line people caring for patients and their lives will be intertwined with the community. They will have kids in schools and little league, will join local organizations and volunteer.  It is no wonder that many will begin practice within a few miles of where they trained and remain in the area for their whole career. After four years as an undergrad and four more years in medical school, that stability is a prized possession.

Some students enter medical school knowing what they want to do when they grow up. Some have a passion for family practice or pediatrics, while others know they want a career as a surgeon or psychiatrist. Some want to touch patients, some want to live in research labs and others have no idea what they want to do or where they want to live. During the last two years of medical school, students spend weeks rotating through the different specialties, hopefully learning medicine but also discovering their passion. They have opportunity to travel, within the US or to different countries, to pursue that passion and prepare them for perhaps their most important decisions. What do I want to do? and where do I want to do it?

The career paths of the NFL player and the new grad doctor are very similar. They both spend years perfecting their craft with the hope of impressing those who will open the doors to the next stage in their life. The football player may have to change positions to move forward. The medical student may have to decide upon a different specialty. The football player may want to live in the California sun but may end up in Buffalo. The medical student may reach for a dream training slot but it ultimately depends upon the computer match to decide where he or she may go.

In the NFL, fans care about their team and its players as if they were family. Drafting a new favorite son is a rite of spring passage. Imagine the fervor, if people appreciated the importance of the residency match to their community. And imagine the proud mayor stepping up to the podium and announcing:

“With the fourth pick in the second round of this year’s draft, Omaha picks, from the University of Oklahoma, an obstetrician.”

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