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Imagine going to medical school. A typical scene would have a heavy academic load, books, classes, and an extensive library. Now imagine you are studying next to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean with the gentle island breeze. Not a typical medical school, but medical students like BYU graduate Bryan Taylor who decide to continue their education “offshore” in the Caribbean have nothing traditional.
Taylor, who graduated in 2005, is typical of many students attending overseas medical schools to save time and money. He said it was a few years after graduating when he decided to attend medical school and that he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for the U.S. application process to be extended.
“So I looked at other options,” said Taylor.
[media-credit name=”Denet Grampp” align=”alignleft” width=”300″][/media-credit]The Grand Cayman coast is popular with tourists and medical students at nearby St. Matthews University. Unlike US schools that accept students in the fall, Caribbean schools typically accept new students in January, May, and September. Through his experience of interacting with other US medical students, Taylor said he believed that the education he received was comparable to the US system.
“I have no shortage of knowledge,” said Taylor. The typical road to becoming a state-examined, licensed physician in the United States begins with completing a bachelor’s degree with the requisite medical school qualifications and achieving a competitive score on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). From there, students can apply to schools in the United States, many of which are affiliated with teaching hospitals. After completing the two-year book course, all students, whether foreign or US-educated, must take and pass the first step of the US admissions exam before moving on to two years of clinical rotation. From there, step two of the medical entrance exam must be taken and passed before an MD degree and resident training can be applied for. The third and final step of the medical entrance exam must be passed before the end of the stay.
Taylor has successfully passed the first and second steps of the exam and is about to graduate from St. Matthews University in Grand Cayman. He is preparing for resident training.
“Many students [from Caribbean schools] pass, do well, and have great opportunities for residents, ”said Taylor.
Founded in 1978, Ross University, the largest of the Caribbean schools, claims on its website to bring more medical graduates into US residencies annually than any other school in the world. The website attributes the statistics to the Cicero Group. The school also has a banner to advertise that it “fills the critical shortage of doctors and veterinarians in the US health care system.”
An article published in the New York Times claims that experts are forecasting a shortage of 90,000 doctors in the US by 2020. According to the article published in December 2010, more than 42,000 students apply to the medical school each year and only about 18,600 enroll. As a result, many of these rejected students turn to international sources for their education. The article highlights that more than a quarter of US hospital residents are from international graduates.
Non traditional route to medicine
Like many medical students in the Caribbean, Ralene Wiberg, now a resident of West Virginia University’s Eastern Division, took a nontraditional route to medical school. Wiberg attended BYU Hawaii and graduated from Boise State with a degree in nursing. At this point in her life, she was not applying for a medical school or a career as a nurse. Instead, she focused her energy on being a woman and a mother. After their fourth child was born, her husband left. As a single mother, she relapsed into nursing studies to take care of her young family. On her first day at work, Wiberg helped deliver a baby and realized that she wanted to be the doctor, not the nurse. With children aged 4 to 8, she decided that medical school was not an option and hid the dream – even though she became a nurse.
“Nursing is a great career for a mother with young children,” said Wiberg. “I couldn’t do a medical degree [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 despite her degree in nursing, it would take more than two years to complete the prerequisites for courses such as zoology and chemistry. She remembered a mailer she received from a school in the Caribbean aimed at nurses. After some online research, she found one. The University of Health Sciences in Antigua would enable her to meet the requirements at the same time as her didactic work at the medical school. For an added bonus for Wiberg, University of Health Sciences in Antigua, no MCAT score was required for applicants with a professional license.
“I applied and got in straight away,” Wiberg said, adding that the school also gave her the flexibility to spend a month on the island and two months at home with her children.
After successfully passing steps one and two of the US Medical Licensing Exam, Wiberg has started her residency and is preparing for her third and final step of the US Medical Licensing Exam.
Wiberg said she does not regret her decision to attend a foreign medical school or consider it an obstacle to becoming a licensed doctor.
“It gives you the way to take the US Medical Licensing Exam and apply for residency,” said Wiberg. “Some won’t even look at you because you’re a foreign medical graduate, but there are many who do.”
With her oldest child at BYU and her youngest child in high school, Wiberg looks to the future and the opportunities that will open up for her.
“I now have so many more options as a doctor than as a nurse,” said Wiberg.
With the growing need for general practitioners in the US and around the world, Wiberg is receiving a number of offers from communities that need doctors and are willing to repay student loans and pay for moving. She said she could go to places like Samoa, New Zealand, Utah or Alaska.
“The possibilities are endless,” said Wiberg. She points out the additional benefits of achieving her goal, such as confidence in the skills learned and the personal fulfillment of the knowledge that she has what it takes to become a doctor.
“There are options,” said Wiberg. “If 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 the medical school at Xavier University in Aruba is both professional and financial. Although he plans to take the license exam, his biggest dream is to practice medicine internationally for charity. After all, he would like to return to Ghana.
“My degree is recognized internationally,” said Brown. “I will have the opportunity to practice medicine everywhere.”
Work harder in paradise
Regarding the work ethic of foreign medical graduates, Wiberg said it was her experience that the work ethic of foreign medical graduates exceeds that of the traditional route because the foreign students are constantly striving to prove themselves. In their opinion, they don’t take anything for granted, unlike their traditional counterparts who may have a sense of legitimacy.
Austin Myers agrees that Caribbean students often work harder than their counterparts in the US. A native of Utah, Myers began his education in St. Matthews but moved on to Ross when difficult economic times forced private lenders to stop lending to medical schools that were not eligible for Title IV federal loan programs. Many of his US friends who attended medical school in the Caribbean were also earning MBA or MHA degrees online along with medical school to qualify for school credit. Myers cites this drastic measure as evidence of how much these students want to become doctors.
“Who will get it if they don’t really want it?” Myers said.
Myers said he often compares notes with friends attending medical school at the University of Utah and finds that the quality of education he receives is comparable to schools in the United States, but the demand is greater. He said in Caribbean schools the pressure on students is to perform and not fail, while in the US it is in the best interest of the school to help students succeed. Myers said the Caribbean schools often consolidate into one semester, while the US schools take two semesters to teach.
“There is so much information so quickly,” Myers said. “If you can’t do it, you can’t go on.”
Myers passed the first step of the medical licensing exam and is on clinical rotation in Atlanta. He said finding success in medical school is a matter of perspective.
“If you’re not there for the right reasons, it doesn’t matter where you go to school,” Myers said. “The road I took is less traveled for a reason. It’s definitely the harder way. “
Myers opted for medical training after successfully receiving treatment for advanced stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The doctor who found his cancer practiced in the US and trained abroad. Myers had served in the military for six years and said his GPA was competitive, but his MCAT suffered from his absence from school. To apply for a medical school in the United States, he would have had to do the MCAT again and wait another year with no guarantee. Myers decided to start his education right away and moved his family to Grand Cayman.
“Ultimately, everyone who practices medicine in the United States must meet the same requirements, regardless of whether they are a foreign or a US graduate,” Myers said. “Everyone who becomes a licensed physician in the US worked hard to get there.”