Med school admission changes open new doors

Crystal Mackay // Western NewsDuring the most difficult days of Gabby Schoettle’s young life, health-care providers showed her incalculable compassion. Those moments inspired Schoettle to be where she is today among 171 new medical students starting their journey to becoming a physician as part of the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry’s annual White Coat Ceremony.

When Gabby Schoettle was 8 years old, her mother died of metastatic breast cancer. Soon afterward, her father became ill and was unable to work. The health-care providers who showed her compassion throughout this tragic journey left a lasting impact on her.

“I had some very influential interactions with doctors and health-care professionals, and for me to be able to be that person for someone else in the future is amazing. It’s all I could ever want,” she said.

Throughout adolescence, she focused on academics and developed a love for learning all while she and her brother worked to pay bills and care for their father whose health was failing. In her final year of high school, with her sights set firmly on becoming a doctor, her father passed away, leaving her and her 15 year-old brother to survive and thrive all on their own.

“I had a very unconventional upbringing and university experience,” she said. “It made me a more resilient person, but it also limited me in a lot of ways.”

Throughout her undergrad, she worked in a laboratory studying breast cancer, and hopes to one day continue both practice and research as an oncologist.

Schoettle will join 171 new medical students receiving their white coat to mark the start of her journey to becoming a physician as part of Schulich’s annual White Coat Ceremony on Tuesday.

This year’s incoming medicine class is the first to have been selected through the initial phase of changes to the medical school admissions process. Research has shown that academic metrics, like Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores and GPA alone, do not necessarily predict success as a physician, and the new process aims to put more focus on applicants’ experiences and values.

The new admissions process meant that the school considered an additional 280 candidates for an interview this year by widening the MCAT thresholds.

As part of the process, all applicants were also asked to include an autobiographical sketch that encompassed information about how their ideals fit with the values of the school and what experiences they’ve had that they believe would make them a successful physician.

“In our prior admissions process, candidates would be invited for an interview if they met the cut-offs for GPA and MCAT scores. Although research shows that these are correlated with academic success, we know academic metrics alone don’t necessarily correlate with being a great physician – one who is knowledgeable, compassionate, and empathetic,” said Dr. Tisha Joy, Associate Dean of Admissions at Schulich.

“The autobiographical sketch allowed us to learn more about candidates and their life experiences and their stories are powerful in showing characteristics such as compassion, maturity, and resilience which we wouldn’t have otherwise garnered from looking at MCAT and GPA alone.”

Through this process, 730 applicants had their entire application package, including autobiographical sketch, reviewed and scored by a panel of physician and non-physician reviewers. They then narrowed that cohort down to 450 who were invited for a face-to-face interview.

In past years, only the 450 with the top MCAT scores and GPA would have been invited for an interview.

While she maintained a high academic standing, she says the addition of the autobiographic sketch allowed her to reflect the resiliency, maturity and compassion gained through her unique life experiences – all traits, she said, that will make her a successful medical student and physician.

“It was huge for me, and such an amazing addition to the application process. It gave me the opportunity to reflect my skills that show what will make me a successful doctor. I learned so much from my experiences that go way beyond just academic skills,” she said.

In an effort to further increase diversity, inclusivity, and equity, the school recognizes that traditional admissions processes may not be equitable to some demographics such as those with financial, medical, and sociocultural barriers, university officials explained. The next phase of the changes will include an ACCESS pathway for this coming year’s admission cycle. Modelled off of law school admissions processes, this pathway will provide even more flexibility for MCAT scores for applicants who have had financial, medical or sociocultural challenges.

“It is one of our goals as a school to increase diversity and inclusion in our classes. These changes to the admissions process in part, will enable us to fulfill that mission by being more inclusive of those that have faced barriers in the past,” said Dr. Jay Rosenfield, Vice Dean of Medical Education at Schulich.

Joy and her team have also begun to collect voluntary diversity statistics in the applicant and admitted student pools including information about socioeconomic status and geography including whether the applicants are from rural or remote communities. The goal is to understand the composition of the incoming class, and to get a clearer picture of the impact of the admissions processes on demographics.

The 2019 statistics show that approximately 23 per cent of the incoming class are considered to be from low socioeconomic status and 19 per cent from remote, rural, or small town communities, values similar to the applicant pool.

“We want to open up our doors to the diverse perspectives and experiences that our admitted students have had, which in turn will enrich the school’s learning environment. To ensure this, we engage a diverse panel of over 400 individuals including physicians, community members and students, to participate in the admissions process,” Joy said.

“Having a diverse medical school class will promote knowledge sharing, innovation, and compassion and ultimately translate into great physicians who will achieve better patient-physician relationships and improved health-related outcomes for the diverse patient population we have in Canada.”