Club med … school: Caribbean schools offer students an alternative to traditional U.S. medical schools

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(To see statistics on medical school acceptance rates, click here: Medical School Acceptance Statistics)

Imagine attending medical school.  A typical scene would include a heavy academic load, books, tuition and an extensive library.  Now picture studying next to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean with the gentle island breeze. Not a typical med school, but there is nothing traditional about med students like BYU graduate Bryan Taylor, who decide to continue their education “offshore” in the Caribbean.

Taylor, who graduated in 2005, is typical of many students who choose to attend foreign medical schools to save time and money. He said he was a couple years past graduation when he decided to attend medical school and he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the U.S. application process to roll over.

“So I looked into other options,” Taylor said.

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The shoreline of Grand Cayman is popular with tourists and med students from nearby St. Matthews University.
Unlike U.S. schools that admit students in the fall, Caribbean schools typically accept new students in January, May and September. Through his experiences interacting with other medical students from the U.S., Taylor said he feels the education he has received is comparable to the U.S. system.

 

“I don’t feel a lack of knowledge,” Taylor said.The typical path to becoming a board-certified, licensed physician in the U.S. begins with completing an undergraduate degree with the necessary medical school pre-requisites and earning a competitive score on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). From there, students may apply to schools throughout the U.S., many of which are affiliated with teaching hospitals. After completing two years of book studies, all students, whether foreign or U.S. educated, must take and pass step one of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam before advancing to two years of clinical rotations. From there, step two of the medical licensing exam must be taken and passed before graduating with an M.D. and applying for resident training. The third and final step of the medical licensing exam must be passed before completion of residency.

Taylor has successfully passed steps one and two of the exam, and is nearing graduation from St. Matthews University in Grand Cayman. He is preparing to apply for resident training.

“Many students [from Caribbean schools] pass, do well and have great resident opportunities,” Taylor said.

Ross University, established in 1978 and the largest of the Caribbean schools, makes the claim on its website of placing more medical graduates into U.S. residencies annually than any other school in the world. The website credits Cicero Group for the statistic. In addition, the school touts in a banner that it is “Filling the critical shortage of physicians and veterinarians in U.S. health care.”

An article published in the New York Times claims experts are predicting a shortage of 90,000 doctors in the United States by 2020. According to the article, published in December 2010, more than 42,000 students apply to medical school every year and only about 18,600 matriculate. As a result, many of these rejected students turn to international sources fortheir education. The article highlights that more than a quarter of residents in U.S. hospitals come from international graduates.

Non-traditional route to medicine

Like many Caribbean med students, Ralene Wiberg, now training as a resident with West Virginia University Eastern Division, took a non-traditional route to med school. Wiberg attended BYU Hawaii and graduated from Boise State with a degree in nursing. She did not apply to med school or pursue a nursing career at that point in her life. Instead, she focused her energy on being a wife and mother. After her fourth child was born, her husband left. As a single mother, she fell back on her nursing degree to provide for her young family. Her first day on the job, Wiberg assisted in the delivery of a baby and realized that she wanted to be the doctor, not the nurse. With children ranging in age from 4 to 8, she decided med school was not an option and tucked the dream away – though she did become a nurse practitioner.

“Nursing is a great career for a mom with young kids,” Wiberg said. “I couldn’t do medical school [at that time]. I waited until my oldest was in college.”

In 2006, Wiberg contacted Boise State to find out what it would take to get into medical school. She learned that though she had a degree in nursing, it would take more than two years of undergraduate work to fulfill the necessary pre-requisites in courses such as zoology and chemistry. She remembered a mailer she had received from a school in the Caribbean that catered to nurses and nurse practitioners. After some online research, she found one. University of Health Science Antigua would allow her to fulfill the pre-requisites concurrently with her med school didactic work. An added bonus for Wiberg, University of Health Science Antigua did not require an MCAT score for applicants with a professional license.

“I applied and got right in,” Wiberg said, adding that the school also gave her the flexibility of attending one month on island and two months back home with her children.

Having successfully passed steps one and two of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, Wiberg has begun her residency and is preparing to take her third and final step of the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam.

Wiberg said she does not regret her decision to attend a foreign medical school, or feel it has been a roadblock to becoming a licensed physician.

“It gives you the path to take the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam and apply for residencies,” Wiberg said. “Some won’t even look at you because you are a foreign medical graduate, but there are plenty that will.”

With her oldest child graduated from BYU and her youngest now in high school,  Wiberg is looking to the future and the opportunities that are opening for her.

“I have so many more options now as a medical doctor than as a nurse practitioner,” Wiberg said.

With a growing need for family practitioners in the U.S. and around the globe, Wiberg said she receives a stream of offers from communities in need of physicians and willing to pay off student loans and pay for relocation. She said she could go to locations such as Samoa, New Zealand, Utah or Alaska.

“The possibilities are endless,” Wiberg said. She notes the added benefits of achieving her goal such as confidence in the skills she has learned, as well as personal fulfillment in knowing she has what it takes to  become a physician.

“There are options,” Wiberg said. “When people tell you no, you have to go through the window instead of the front door.”

For Cecil Brown, a BYU-Idaho international student from Ghana, the decision to attend Xavier University School of Medicine in Aruba is a professional as well as a financial one. Though he plans to take the licensing exam, his ultimate dream is to practice medicine internationally for charity. Eventually, he would like to return to Ghana.

“My degree will be internationally recognized,” Brown said. “I will have the ability to practice medicine anywhere.”

Working harder in paradise

Speaking of the work ethic of foreign medical graduates, Wiberg said it has been her experience the work ethic of foreign graduates exceeds those on the traditional track because the foreign students are constantly striving to prove themselves. In her opinion, they take nothing for granted, as opposed to their traditional counterparts who may have a sense of entitlement.

Austin Myers agrees that Caribbean students often work harder than their U.S. counterparts. Myers, a Utah native, began his education at St. Matthews but transferred to Ross when tough economic times forced private lenders to stop loaning funds to medical schools who were not eligible for Title IV federal loan programs. Many of his U.S. friends attending med school in the Caribbean resorted to earning online concurrent MBA or MHA degrees along with med school in order to qualify to receive school loans. Myers cites this drastic measure as evidence of how badly these students want to become physicians.

“Who’s going to put themselves through that if they don’t really want it?” Myers said.

Myers said he often compares notes with friends attending med school at the University of  Utah and finds that the quality of education he receives is on par with schools in the U.S. but the demand is greater. He said in Caribbean schools the pressure is on the student to perform and not fail whereas in the U.S. it is in the best interest of the school to help students succeed. Myers said the Caribbean schools often condense into one semester what U.S. schools take two semesters to teach.

“It’s so much information so fast,” Myers said. “If you can’t master it, you can’t move on.”

Myers has passed step one of the medical licensing exam and is into clinical rotations in Atlanta.   He said finding success in medical school is a matter of perspective.

“If you’re not in it for the right reasons, it doesn’t matter where you go to school,” Myers said. “The road I’ve taken is the road less traveled, for a reason. It is definitely the more difficult path.”

Myers decided to pursue med school after being successfully treated for advanced stage IV non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The doctor who found his cancer was practicing in the U.S. and foreign educated. Myers had served six years in the military and said his GPA was competitive but his MCAT suffered from his time away from school. In order to apply to med school in the U.S. he would have had to re-take the MCAT and wait another year with no guarantee. Myers decided to begin his education immediately and moved his family to Grand Cayman.

“At the end of the day, anyone who practices medicine in the U.S. must complete the same requirements whether they are a foreign or U.S. graduate,” Myers said. “Anyone who becomes a licensed physician in the U.S., regardless of the path taken, has worked hard to get there.”

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