Sunday, October 4, 2009

How to Get Into Medical School

Once in a while, I interview pre-med applicants to my school. While the medical students' evaluations are probably influential as only a low-NPV serial-killer screening test, I still very much enjoy doing them. This is because, if the applicants are eventually admitted, I get profuse thank-yous and friendly hellos for the entire subsequent year. Other than this experience, I have no knowledge whatever on the inner workings of the admissions chambers, so my insights are based on some post-call Gladwellian blinks.

Please note that Numbers 1 and 4 should not actually be followed by anyone, and are akin to obtaining a Golden Ticket by serially eating thousands of candy bars, or harassing hundreds of factory employees to unwrap them. It's just not worth it.

1) Take Physics for Poets.
And Literature for Actuaries. PE for Hobbits. Enroll in the easiest courses that fulfill pre-med requirements, and for which you almost certainly can earn an A- or above. The caveat here would be that you'd have to choose a somewhat traditional-sounding major, so it cannot be Fashion Merchandising, Liberal Studies, or Communications. Slightly newer, but still well-respected (and sometimes difficult, depending on your school- be careful!) majors, such as Women's Studies, as well as many interdisciplinary majors (i.e. Latin-American Studies) are considered fine.

My reasoning here is that, when it comes to course-work, admissions committees care mostly (though not exclusively) about Overall and Science GPAs, as well as a notable absence of Cs. A B- in "Physics for Future Nobel Laureates" is worth less than an A- in your standard Calc-based Mechanics course. Don't take any high-stakes gambles.

(For those now tuning in: Do NOT actually follow this advice. Take 4 years of Russian, a Combinatorics class, and a seminar on James Joyce. Keep your life joyous and a bit irrationally exuberant.)

2) Do your Undergrad at State School.
State school makes sense in general, and especially so if you are pre-med. It's generally easier to get an A in the science classes there. I know this statement may draw some contrarian personal testimonies from people who attended The University of Somewhere. The thing is, I know that many of the kids there are just as smart as the ones in Someone University, and that the teacher quality is likely the exact same. But the same student can often be in the top 10% of his Orgo class in a public school (also improving his chances for getting an excellent recommendation), rather than in the middling middle of an equivalent Ivy course.

3)Sign up for at least one test prep program, but not for any live classes.
Study by simply doing as many sample test questions as possible, starting on day one. Then go over the explanations and the reading material for anything you get wrong. You may get many or most questions wrong in the beginning. Still, do not waste time reading through the review books before you start taking practice tests. Take your MCATs in April, not August. Try to get at least a 30, unless you funded your school's infectious diseases institute (Treating Burmese children suffering from infectious diseases is not an acceptable substitute).

4) If Short on Time, Don't Dedicate a Huge Amount of Time to Clinical Experiences
While you should have some shadowing or hospital volunteering experiences, you do not actually need much of it. An EMT who has transported five patients looks roughly the same on an application as an EMT who has worked since age 16, has delivered a hundred babies, and can already interpret EKGs. The AMCAS does ask you how many hours per week you spend on each activity, but 5 hours vs. 10 hours per week probably doesn't get noticed. If stressed and cynical, think of marginal benefits.

(Repeated disclaimer: This advice is about what gets you into medical school, not about what you should do. To become a good doctor, take advantage of every opportunity you can to gain clinical experience. Some people cut corners without any one else ever noticing, but don't allow your values and ambitions to conform to this strategy).

5)Be Specific in your Essays.
When answering questions for your secondary applications, do not write "I am passionate about..." Have a strong, unique opening, even for those one paragraph answers. When addressing why you want to attend a particular school, refer to specific professors or programs. Don't use generic phrases like "Exceptional academics," "Excellent location," or "Outstanding research." Instead, say that you've always admired the [Insert Name] Free Clinic that Dr. [Insert Name] started, and you would like to volunteer there because he sees a lot of patients with [Insert medical condition], which is a disease you may want to specialize in.

(Don't lie. No one will ever know whether or not you are truly interested in that clinic, but to maintain your dignity, try to identify specific features of a school that you do actually care about.)

I know my take on medical school admissions is a bit cynical. However, even the most caring and mission-minded committee members must focus one eye on the US News rankings. The subsequent diplopia means that the theoretically best choices for pre-meds are not necessarily those that insure a successful application. If you find yourself sacrificing too many opportunities, I'd recommend dropping pre-med, enrolling in PA school, keeping your specialty of choice, and becoming a happy, dedicated, and productive clinician.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Psych Consult

Mr. A is a 40-year old male. After checking in his items with the clerk, and obtaining a full evaluation from the ER doc, the psychiatrist and students begin the interview.

Mr. A: You have to check me into the psychiatric unit. Otherwise, I'm going to hurt somebody! And I'm going to kill myself!

Student: Mr. A., Which do you plan to do first, hurt someone else or kill yourself? [Yes, I know it's a weird question, but we use it to assess the viability of the plan. Some patients take the bait].

Mr. A: Hurt someone else first!

Student: Who do want to hurt?

Mr. A: Anyone who pisses me off! I was already going to hurt at least 5 people today, before I checked in.

Student: How do you plan to harm someone else?

Mr. A.: I'm gonna stab them with a fork!

[After full assessment]

Physician: Mr. A, we're going to admit you into the psychiatric unit of the hospital... students can you please bring over Mr. A's belongings?

Student: Clerk, can you tell us which one's Mr. A's locker?

Clerk: Yeah, it's over here. But he only brought one item with him. I think it was a fork.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Epistemology of Paranoid Schizophrenia

Note: All details, including names, ages, and specific descriptions of conversations with staff or patients have been considerably changed. Sorry, I know that reality blogging is more fun than fake medical encounters. Additionally, the discussion exclusively concerns people with relatively mild or well-controlled schizophrenic symptoms, with whom I can easily engage in conversation.

When the psychiatry resident asked for an update on Tracy, I glibly responded, "Still very delusional. Thinks the CIA is after her."

"She's not delusional!" the doctor corrected. "The CIA or the FBI or whatever agency really is after her. Tracy used to threaten killing former President Bush numerous times. During her last hospitalization, I had to argue with the authorities for hours, to convince them that she's safe for discharge." Thus, my near-designation on my patient's record as possessing this delusion, or a "fixed, false belief," that is not "widely held within the context of the individual's cultural or religious group" was in error. Tracy's paranoia was based on truth.

The interesting part, however, of working with schizophrenic patients is generally not figuring out what is false; Patients have spoken of receiving commands from their televisions to overthrow the "vitamin pill industry," and of obtaining classified information that their true parents are Liza Minnelli and Bobby Fisher. Many patients insist that a doctor or nurse can gain remote access to the contents of their brains, via some transhumanistic, genetic link-protocol of sorts. False belief, check.

Determining what falls under cultural norms can be a bit trickier. One patient, David, believes that he and fellow schizophrenics have powers in the "sixth dimension," on an "etherical, astral, plane," a belief that I'd brand as delusional, if I 1) Knew what it meant, curvilinear coordinates not being my forte and 2) The International Headquarters of the Theosophy Society weren't right in my hometown, flagging this as a possible local cultural or religious belief.

The main challenge in assessing delusions, however, lies mainly in determining which are considered "fixed," or intransigent to reason and the passage of time. A binary "yes" or "no" to describe the "fixedness" of a belief is inadequate. Many patients come to the hospital voluntarily, desperate to rid themselves of fearsome beliefs or voices that they know, at least in part, aren't true. Thus, they demand anti-psychotics that deny the pleasure of dopamine, and beg for mood-stabilizing drugs that inhibit norepinephrine-fueled arousal. And those are just some of the intended effects. Side effects include dystonia, neuroepileptic malignant syndrome, the frog-tongued gestures of tardive dyskinesia, and the rabbit-mouthed oscillations of EPS. Patients are often desperate to "unlearn" their beliefs, and hope to foster distrust of the voices in their head, which so distrust everyone around them.

Tom, one of my fellow medical students, asks patients an interesting question: "What do you think is the percent probability that your belief is true, and what is the percent probability that it isn't true?" Lillian, who's convinced that President Obama promised her $1 million, so long as she refrains from eating, (the Cult of the Presidency is the only thing both alive and well in the psych ward) said "About 5% of me thinks it's true, and 95% of me thinks it's not true." Five percent is not terribly much. I'm sure there are plenty of beliefs I maintain with a similar level of certainty that would confer me with at least an Axis II diagnosis, if someone could scan my brain for the latest Bayesian updates. Which leads me to wonder if percentages and predictions can adequately capture the credos that serve as the foundation for diagnosing paranoid schizophrenia.

For those of us with homo economicus pretensions, such stated probabilities may even persuade us that schizophrenic biases are simply standard deviants from very irrational mean population thought content. Indeed, critics of psychiatry often insist that people are deemed psychotic, simply because their delusions don't conform to what all the cool kids are fabricating this season. In this view, once norms change (like they did when the medical professions stopped labeling homosexuality as a disease), many schizophrenics will be considered as peers among the unhinged masses, with all our opioidic (agonistic and antagonistic both), nonsensical beliefs unleashed.

Perhaps we can focus on a more qualitative approach to evaluating "fixedness." After all, numbers don't seem to work with a patient named Mark, who contemplates (at least after he's taken his meds) of the instructions he "receives" from the devil via rap songs on the radio, "they're sometimes real...I don't know... it's so hard to separate in my head." Perhaps, we can ask an Isaac Levi-inspired series of questions, checking off what David considers "serious possibilities," out of a "potential corpora of knowledge and evidence." I can ask David, "Do you think that it's physically possible for you to hear the devil speaking to you, and only you, from the radio? Logically possible? Technologically possible? Psychologically possible?

Defenders of psychiatric designations counter their critics by noting that virtually every DSM-IV diagnosis, including schizophrenia, must involve significant impairment in occupational or social functioning. Apparently, in 2003, 20% of Americans affirmed to pollsters that an HIV vaccine already exists, but is being kept a secret. And yet, I don't see many people staging the proper revolt that such a conspiracy, if actually true, would merit. Aberrant thought content alone is not the rate-limiting-step to being diagnosed as schizophrenic. Many people have negative thoughts about the vitamin pill industry, but only Sally (who has Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Type) embraced her mission by roaming in the streets, "recruiting" fellow revolutionaries (i.e. passing cars), and propelling Los Angelenos into traffic-induced hysterics.

So for paranoid schizophrenics who maintain only 5% certainty about their delusions, perhaps they simply act upon this glimmer of confidence more often than others, like the "Deal or No Deal" folks who, knowing basic math, still reject the banker's actuarially outlandish offer, because, what if the million is in my box? According to polls, many Americans claim that our current president is a foreigner, and is thus ineligible for his elected position, according to our country's most sacred national document. Then we go off to do our laundry and water our lawns. However, there are always those few that can't eat, sleep, or tweet, while harboring such persistent ideations of conspiracy.

A behaviorist might say that, Bayesian self-reports not-withstanding, patients' actions exclusively measure their convictions. Skinnerians will believe our stated fidelity to untruth when they see it! All the rest perhaps just falls under the purview of "symbolic belief." In other words, you may take pride in widely professing that Obama is an alien, but watch your shame when a behaviorist calls you out on your pretense! My humble suggestion: To stay out of the psych ward, you're better off holding certain beliefs as insincerely as possible.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Palliative Care Grand Rounds is Up!

Thaddeus Pope at the Medical Futility blog does a beautiful job hosting the latest Palliative Care Grand Rounds. For my contribution, I describe an experience working with the family of a 28-year-old patient who died of breast cancer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Med-staffing Coachella

Coachella is like a giant exhibition of Roomba vacuum cleaners, where restless young beings motor along toward one end of the giant field, bump into someone or something at the other end, and then head in a different direction, continuously for three days straight. Occasionally, one might stop to check out a band, buy a tofu naan sandwich, or take a puff of something. But mostly you just kind of amble around, smiling with kinship at each person whom you passed by a couple of hours earlier.

This seemingly underwhelming activity is actually quite joyful, and I do plan to one day attend as an actual ticket-holder. This year, I served as a med-student-helper-outer-to-the-EMTs, (but not officially as an EMT, as my license expired a few years back). The Company (not HIPAA) forbids us from speaking even generally about the cases we saw, but I'd say that the biggest progress made involved my riding of an awesome John Deere Gator everywhere. Thus, the lingering childhood resentment over my lack of Power Wheels (Miskeena!) is now officially resolved, sans therapy.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grand Rounds is Up Again!

Brought to you by Dr. Guzmán at Pharmamotion. My submission addresses the pressing issue of med student apparel.
Guzmán has a very Canadian post about Gp IIa/IIIb inhibitors (a class of anti-platelet function drugs) over here. I mention this because tonight is the magical night where the fairy godmother comes and I transform into a Canadian at the stroke of midnight. So I'm channeling all my Kafkaesque energies into becoming the pharm video narrator with the pleasant voice, rather than this guy.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Weird Medical Etymology of the Day

Fornication comes from the word fornix, which means "arch." In Roman times, customers used to identify the brothels by a prominent archway at the entrance. (Coincidentally, we refer to the anterior, posterior, and lateral fornices as components of the uterus, but we also have a fornix in the brain, so interpret that as you will).

HT: My Gross Anatomy Prof

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for the possibility that this is all urban legend.