A new set of rankings, just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is causing quite a stir in the academic medical sphere.

Why? Because as opposed to drawing on more traditional criteria, these rankings rate medical schools on their “social mission” — described by NPR as whether they’re producing primary care doctors; doctors who are minorities; and/or doctors who work in underserved areas.

The results are striking: many traditionally top-rated medical schools — including Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford — fall in the bottom 20 of the 141 schools rated, with larger public universities and historically black colleges and universities taking most of the top spots.

NPR interviewed Dr. Candice Chen — co-author of the new rankings, and an investigator at the  George Washington University School of Public Health and  Health Services — to discuss the rankings’ implications:

Medical schools, Chen explains, often claim whether students choose primary care has a lot more to do with financial worries – including paying off student loans – than with how the schools operate. “But the variation shows that some medical schools are obviously doing it better than others,” she says.  “It allows us to give credit to medical schools that are doing the hard work, the good work, the social mission work. Medical schools have traditionally not gotten a lot of credit for this work.”

She’s right — they haven’t. And that’s why, regardless of the controversy over the social mission rankings’ methodology (in NPR’s piece, the Chief Academic Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges says the ranking “produces an inaccurate and limited picture,” and that “medical schools meet society’s needs in many ways through their integrated missions in medical education, research and patient care”) it’s unquestionably a good thing that our conversation over what constitutes a top medical school has now been broadened.

It’s also unquestionable that there’s a hunger on the part of many emerging health professionals to make a difference in their communities beyond daily patient care — and here at ASF, we’ve been working to supply them with the tools to do exactly that for almost 20 years. Established in 1991, our U.S . Schweitzer Fellows Programs — which supplement traditional graduate-level education — are designed to develop Leaders in Service who are dedicated and skilled in meeting the health needs of underserved people.

For many medical student Schweitzer Fellows, developing into a Leader in Service means going into primary care as opposed to specializing. As we’ve written before, this path is not easy:

Providing primary care, especially to underserved communities, is hard. Sticking with it is even harder. At ASF, we don’t shy away from that fact. In fact, the primary purpose of our Fellows for Life network is to enable program alumni to support each other in the often-exhausting paths they’ve committed to. And a signifier of the Fellowship’s year-long direct service project is that in carrying those projects from concept to completion on top of their preexisting professional school responsibilities, Schweitzer Fellows come away with a hard-earned blueprint for how to consistently integrate working with the underserved into their lives.

We’re heartened that more and more people and institutions seem to be increasingly seeking and supporting that blueprint: Schweitzer Fellows have come from more than 100 schools across the country, and many of those schools have generously partnered with ASF — affirming their commitment to developing emerging professionals for whom meeting the health needs of underserved people is a driving force.

Now, it’s time for all of us to sharpen that commitment. After all, the existence of these new social mission rankings doesn’t just put the ball in the courts of those schools who ranked low; it puts the ball in all of our courts. To address health disparities, we need a medical workforce that has developed not just the skills and abilities to work with underserved people, but also the passion and commitment to do so on a sustained basis. Following the lead of these rankings — even if they’re imperfect — let’s place a high enough value on that need to spur ourselves to action.

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