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Practicing Physicians

Students, alumni commit to patient care

When fire broke out at MIT’s One Broadway office building in December 2006, emergency medi­cal personnel arrived promptly–including the students on call at MIT’s volunteer Emergency Medical Services (EMS). EMS chief Rachel Williams ‘07 and a professional emergency worker quickly ran into the blazing building. “We went into the lobby of One Broadway, which was very smoky, and all the alarms were blaring,” Williams says. “It was pretty intense. We got our patient onto the stretcher and headed out the doors.” For hours, Williams and two EMS team members worked alongside professionals–evacuating hundreds of office workers, triaging the injured, and sending 30 to nearby hospitals. This was not a typical school day for an undergraduate.

MIT’s student-run Emergency Medical Services trained nearly 120 community members in emergency medical techniques in April 2008.

“The Broadway fire taught me some interesting things about myself,” says Williams, now a medical student in West Virginia. “First, you never know how you’re going to handle a situation like that until you are actually there. I was glad to know that when it came down to it, I managed to maintain a cool head. The experience allows me to have confidence in myself that whatever may come, I can handle it.”

Practicing to Practice

Williams, a chemical-engineering major, says that her decision to become a physician was based on both her mother’s difficulties with cancer treatment and her own experiences with MIT-EMS. “I knew the medical field was where I was heading, but in an unexpected way, my experiences at MIT pushed me away from a strictly scientific view and toward [working] with patients,” she says. “MIT showed me the benefits and importance of human interaction. I think that’s the opposite of what outsiders perceive of the culture here.”

Getting to practice patient care before making a career decision is one of the payoffs for students who work for EMS or MIT’s MedLinks program. EMS involves 50 to 60 students who are responsible for ambulance services on campus. MedLinks is a peer health advocacy program that manages about 120 students who are trained to be first responders for student health problems–from mild fevers to depressive episodes–in their dorms and living groups.

MIT Medical, which hosts EMS, appreciates the students’ hard work and commitment in this volunteer role, says Maryanne Kirkbride, who serves as clinical director for campus life. “This lets them try the waters and see if they like patient care. It’s also good in terms of building a CV for medical school,” she says.

Rising Tide of Medical Professionals

MIT was not a typical premed path in decades past, and women faced additional challenges. When Debra Judelson ‘73, a ­Beverly Hills-based cardiologist who was one of the first to focus on women’s heart health, interviewed for a desirable cardiology fellowship, she was told that they accepted a woman every other year–and sorry, they took a woman last year. So she moved to Southern California to do her fellowship.

Three decades later, the MIT Careers Office shepherds about 190 students and alumni through the medical-school application process each year. About half the applicants are grad students or recent graduates. The other half are seniors–about 10 percent of the graduating class. Some 75 percent of applicants are female. Most MIT applicants are successful. In 2007, students and alumni had a 74 percent acceptance rate, compared with a 45 percent average nationwide.

MIT’s support of students and alumni who want to pursue medical careers doesn’t end there. The MIT Alumni Association places dozens of undergraduate and graduate students in January externships with surgeons, attending physicians, and specialists. And in addition to offering workshops and advice on the complex process of applying to med school, the MIT Careers Office also pairs students with local practicing physicians who serve as mentors. In 2007, nearly 87 percent of MIT applicants with such advisors got into medical school.

Michael Bailin ‘80, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, is one of many alumni now serving in this role. His experiences with his own advisor inspired him, he says: “He was the first person who truly took an interest in my plans and had the knowledge to guide me through the process. It was a formal and vital relationship for me, and I will always be grateful for his help and patience.”

Problem Solving as a Diagnostic Skill

As a student, Judelson approached medicine indirectly. A materials science and engineering major, she took several typical premed classes–such as an introductory biology class taught by Salvador Luria, who had just won the Nobel Prize in medicine–simply because she was interested. And her major taught her problem-solving skills that have served her well in diagnosis (see “Mind and Heart,” July/August 2007 and at technologyreview.com).

“The traditional way people are taught to solve problems in medicine is to simplify the parts and work your way through a flow chart,” Judelson says. “At MIT, we were encouraged to get as much information as you can and try to find common threads. If someone comes in with back pain and you only think of back pain symptoms, then you’ll never find atypical appendicitis. You have to pay attention to not just the obvious but the less obvious solutions.”

What distinguishes clinical physicians from medical researchers is, ultimately, interest in patients. “I love patient care,” Judelson says. “Very often patients don’t have a clue what’s wrong, but if you let them talk awhile, you can really help them–not just with a particular ailment, but with how they manage their personal health. It makes practicing medicine an art as well as a science.”

While only about 2,000 alumni specify health-care services as their industry in the Online Alumni Directory, their contributions are notable. Judelson’s breakthrough work raised awareness that led to a nationwide revision of the protocols for treating women with heart problems. Richard Berger ‘85, an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago, pioneered minimally invasive hip and knee replacement that allows patients to recover faster and with less pain. Orthopedic specialist Bob Satcher ‘86, PhD ‘93, will study the effects of bone and muscle degeneration in space as a NASA astronaut on a 2009 mission. Jerry Waye ‘54, a New York-based gastroenterologist, is a world leader in endoscopic colonoscopy techniques. Cato Laurencin, PhD ‘87, a nationally prominent orthopedic surgeon, is dean of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Dermatologist Stephen Tang, SM ‘69, EE ‘70, was drawn to medicine through his volunteer work cofounding a community health center serving Boston’s Chinatown.

Caring for Patients

Many alumni, such as Roger Mark ‘60, PhD ‘66, combine teaching, research, and patient care. At MIT, Mark is a professor of health sciences and technology and electrical engineering, the founding director of the Biomedical Engineering Center for Clinical Instrumentation, and housemaster at the Sidney Pacific graduate residence. Outside MIT, he is a practicing physician. When he returned to Boston after a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he wanted to apply emerging telemedicine practices to a local population in need of better medical care. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, he set up a nursing-home telemedicine practice, working with nurse practitioners who consulted with doctors by telephone about treatment options–thus saving needless trips to emergency rooms while improving critical care. Building on this success, he founded the Urban Medical Group, a Boston-based nonprofit focused on elderly, chronically ill, and underserved patients, where he continues to provide clinical care.

“When I was a sophomore, I decided that I wanted to spend at least part of my time taking care of sick people,” says Mark. “I wanted to do it because it was a way of serving my fellow humans. In the one-to-one experience of trying to help somebody–help them to get better or help them to die–you are doing your best to be of service to that patient. I find that very rewarding.”

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