Opinion

The case for mature medical students

When we arrived on campus at McMaster University to begin our medical studies, we were both anticipating some feelings of alienation. Pushing 30 years old and having switched into medicine from unrelated fields, we didn’t quite fit the mould. And yet, we were confident in what we brought to the table: experience, perspective, focus.

Professional and graduate programs in Canada have long touted values that promote diversity of experience. With admissions cycles becoming increasingly competitive, matriculant GPAs steadily inching upward, and the proliferation of targeted preparatory programs, it’s no surprise that admissions panels have increasingly looked toward extracurricular or professional experiences as differentiators and proxies for applicant quality.

It makes sense. When picking the next batch of business executives, lawmakers and physicians to lead our ranks, we should consider their track records as a strong predictor of their success. As our academic institutions shepherd their students into positions of influence, technical competencies become table stakes, giving way for those with mastery of softer skills to move the needle.

Business schools have understood this for decades: today, of the 13 Canadian universities we investigated that have both Masters of Business Administration programs and medical schools, all explicitly require or strongly recommend post-graduate work experience for admission to their MBA program. Law programs sing a similar tune, albeit a less prescriptive one. While none of the law programs we sampled require work experience, 73 per cent of them provide special consideration for “mature students” – typically those at least five years out from full-time schooling.

With our medical schools, however, the situation is starkly different. Of the 14 English-speaking medical schools in Canada, only two – the University of Calgary and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine – make very slight accommodations for older, experienced candidates. The result is an incoming student body comprised mostly of young gunners, privileged or fortunate enough to recognize and act upon an early interest in medicine, optimizing their course schedules and extracurricular blend to maximize their chances. With admission rates in the single digits, it’s hard to blame them for their efforts, which can often come across as contrived – don’t hate the player, hate the game.

And the game definitely can feel like an uphill battle, especially for older applicants whose academic records have long been set in stone. Typically, with age or career advancement and additional familial or financial responsibilities comes less free time to complete prerequisites or ace the MCAT. There are also psychological barriers, such as the sunk-cost fallacy for a career already in motion, a perceived stigma against mature students, and the lack of a like-minded community surrounding you to help navigate roadblocks.

In the end, many mature applicants self-select out of the process. To be sure, an early start to medical training has its advantages; with postgraduate medical training lasting anywhere from two to more than 10 years should you choose to be, say a neurosurgeon, and the risk of burnout higher than ever, it makes sense to prioritize younger candidates who will have the time and energy to dedicate themselves fully. Could one not argue, however, that mature candidates would have sharper coping tools that would allow them to push back on the systemic forces that cause burnout in the first place? Much noise has been made about our so-called “broken health-care system” – what better way to force change than with an outsider’s perspective?

Mature candidates bring immense clarity of purpose to their medical education.

Despite the uphill battle, mature candidates bring immense clarity of purpose to their medical education. These students have considered other career options; they are well aware that there are many other ways to “help people,” experience challenging work or achieve a high salary. They are also typically further along in choosing a specialty, either based on previous experience interacting with specific disciplines, or from an extensive understanding of the types of work that best fit their lives and personalities. For example, with time already spent in the workforce, mature students are more likely to know if they are a generalist or specialist, customer-facing or back of house, a doer or a thinker.

Finally, mature students are exactly what our bruised medical system desperately needs. Looking to increase interprofessional collaboration in health care? Perhaps candidates with experience as paramedics and nurses might do the trick. Not enough medical staff to get the job done? Consider admitting individuals who have increased team and organization efficiency as part of consulting firms. Struggling to scale virtual care, supported by data science and AI? Recruit medical students who have applied these technologies to other industries. Concerned with physician empathy? Choose candidates who have relationships with people of all different ages and walks of life – based on time spent away from the hamster wheel of academia.

Anecdotally, these are the same students who often worked part-time to put themselves through undergraduate degrees, who based their previous career decision on needing to pay rent, and who don’t have a close relative in medicine to help guide their career decisions – or buy them a car. These are the students who have experience supporting loved ones with illness or as patients themselves, often affecting their education and careers. Mature students may not be a panacea for our health system’s ailments, but at the very least, admitting more of them might help solve the longstanding issue of low socioeconomic diversity in Canadian medical schools.

Getting more mature students into Canadian medical school would not require innovation. Instead, university administrators could borrow from other jurisdictions and professions:

  •   In law, JD programs often offer separate admissions streams for individuals with greater than 5 years’ work experience. In these separate streams, admissions committees place less emphasis on academic records, instead focusing on applicants’ experiences in other fields, their ability to organize their work, as well as other evidence of intellectual inquiry.
  • In business, MBA programs often compare individuals from a broad range of backgrounds, industries and experience levels. They review many of the same application components as medical schools, but “one [component] is not rated over the other – it is holistic.” Such programs encourage applicants to highlight what makes them distinct from their peers, not just their ability to check the right boxes.
  •   In the United States, many programs are available to support students who have completed a bachelor’s degree, but are not strong applicants for medical admission. These post-baccalaureate programs are usually directly affiliated with medical schools, and tend to cater to students from educationally or economically disadvantaged groups, or who entered university with other career goals in mind.

For both of us studying here at McMaster in the “birthplace of evidence-based medicine”, our case is glaringly lacking in supportive peer-reviewed research. Based on our informal review of the literature, much of it doesn’t yet exist.

In the meantime, we wonder if university administrators might consider other epistemologies, such as those used by their law, business and social science colleagues. At a minimum, we recommend that they get to know the mature students currently in their programs, work with them to co-create change, and treat them with the respect and consideration of fellow professionals.

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2 Comments
  • Dr. Constance Nasello says:

    I entered médical school at 30, after spending seven years working in medical research and with a lot of involvement in community leadership. It was also at a time in the 1980s when Western University had a “mature student” category, which set aside 10 spots for students over the age of 25. In actual fact, it was a means of only allowing 10 students older than 25 be admitted, who met the criteria for entry. The year that I got in was the year that they drop the category, likely because of fears of a discrimination suit based on the relatively new human rights code. In my year, over 40% of the class was “mature”, ranging in age from 25 to 45.

    Our class was uncommonly atypical, and in the first couple of years, we were constantly told how “awful” we were. We challenged conventional ideas and process, in ways that our instructors we’re not used to. We were so “ terrible”, that we had more people graduate cum laude then previous medical classes had cum laude and honours graduates together. In fact, 75% of our class graduated with at least Honours. And many of us went into specialties, including our eldest classmate that went into general surgery. I went into OBGYN. We definitely were more focussed and more efficient with time management than some of our younger colleagues. Many of us had children, or went on to have children during medical school, internship and residency. The value of life experience brings something new to medical training.

    As a subsequent rural adjunct professor in distributed education, it was virtually impossible to tell someone’s age but more by how well they adapted to clinical training with insightful clinical patient encounters.

    Good luck to you both in your training path.

  • Kelly says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you for this, I couldn’t agree more to every statement. I am that undergraduate who had to work part (and sometimes full) time to support myself. Being the first person in my family to go to post-secondary school, I did not have the mentorship needed to guide me anywhere other than, ‘go to university and get a good job’. That sentiment that myself and my peers experienced has not placed us all down the right path, however I consider myself one of the lucky ones.
    I now have a great paying career as a consultant in a health authority, but part of me will always wish I went into medicine. At nearly 40 years old, it’s not feasible for me, but I hope our system changes for others that have the burning desire, but can at least act on it at an early enough age that it no longer is a dream.

    There is no one easy answer to fix our system, but this is a relatively easy one to make compared to the mountains we have to climb with other issues.

    Thank you again, I will share this article widely.

Authors

Rod Parsa

Contributor

Rod Parsa is a medical student at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University. Prior to medicine, he was a management consultant in Toronto and Boston helping companies innovate and improve their bottom lines.

Rebekah Sibbald

Contributor

Rebekah Sibbald is a medical student at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University. Before medical school, she worked in banking to support financial crime prevention, agile project management and retail employee professional development.

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