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Should students who want to attend medical school have to slog through a year of physics, memorize the structures of dozens of cellular chemicals or spend months studying for the MCAT? Not necessarily.
There are a few nontraditional paths into medical school. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, for example, has admitted a quarter of its incoming students for the last 25 years through a program that gave early admittance to humanities students who didn't have to take the full premed slate of science classes.
"It was designed to attract humanities majors to medicine who would bring a different perspective to education and medical practice," says Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of the school. And it worked so well, he says, that the school expanded the program on Wednesday.
By 2015, about half the incoming class will be admitted through the new FlexMed program, which will accept students of any educational background, including those in computer science and engineering.
"We're really looking for students that are innovative, that think out of the box," Charney says, "the [Mark] Zuckerbergs of the world that would go into medicine instead of [creating] Facebook."
Prospective students won't have to take the MCAT. But the program doesn't eliminate science entirely. Students, who will be admitted during their sophomore year, will have to take a year of biology or chemistry before applying, and then a few more science and math classes before graduation, as well as maintain a 3.5 GPA.
And students who didn't take enough advanced science as undergraduates will have to go to summer school to learn cell biology, biochemistry and genetics.
Charney says the students will be tracked through medical school and their careers to see if there are differences in the types of fields they go into, the research they perform or the leadership positions they attain.
"If we show that we attract a really innovative group of students," he says, "then I think [other medical schools] will follow our lead."
The traditional med school requirements have been in place for a century, but even when they were first instituted some objected, saying they excluded many excellent potential recruits to the medical profession.
But in recent years, there's been growing support for a revamp of the requirements. A 2009 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute argued that medical schools could gain more flexibility by focusing less on specific courses and more on scientific competencies.
The Icahn School's move "is just the leading edge in response to this national report," says Dr. Donald Barr, who studies premedical education at Stanford. "I think it's a very positive step." He notes that some other schools have already changed their requirements: The University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, for instance, is no longer specific in the courses required.
Barr hopes that the FlexMed program will identify people who are visionary thinkers, not just in terms of technology and biomedicine, but also in how they approach problems such as providing access to medicine among underserved populations. "Medicine needs them," he says.