Learn how real students navigate their way through the medical school admissions process and med school itself with our What is Medical School Really Like? series.
Meet Thea, a PGY-1 Physical Medicine and Rehab resident.
Thea, thank you for sharing your story with us!
Where did you go to medical school? Where are you currently doing your residency, and in which specialty?
Thea: I attend the University of Colorado School of Medicine and will be a resident at Vanderbilt University in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
What attracted you to engineering during your undergrad career? What made you later leave the field?
Thea: I’ve always been interested in healthcare, but as an undergrad, I was weary of pursuing medicine because it was so competitive and everyone seemed more preoccupied with their grades than I was. Since I always liked math and physics, I looked into engineering and found a major called product design. At Stanford, product design is a subset of mechanical engineering with an element of industrial design. Most appealing to me was the fact that there was some teamwork built into the curriculum. I loved my engineering community, and their emphasis on working together to solve complex problems.
Yet, while I was studying engineering, I found that I missed learning about health and medicine. I realized that I wanted to work at the intersection of the two but was lacking sufficient training to do so. Thus, I left engineering to go to medical school. Eventually, I plan to dabble back into product design because I believe that some of the biggest problems in our healthcare system can only be solved via this interdisciplinary approach.
What was your experience as a non-traditional medical applicant?
Thea: Medical school was really difficult for me because the training that I had received in undergrad was enormously different from the way medicine is currently taught. In engineering, I was taught to think critically about a problem, and when I needed help, I would work with my classmates to come up with a solution. Together, we worked on problem sets, and our exams were almost always open book. In medical school, my days consisted of sitting in lecture and memorizing stacks of flashcards by myself. My exams were all closed book and multiple choice. While there are merits to both methods of teaching, I found that I really missed the engineering style of collaborative teaching, which I found both more enjoyable and suited to my learning style.
What sparked your interest in sports medicine?
Thea: As a junior in college, I took a class at the medical school taught by one of my current PM&R mentors, Dr. Michael Fredericson. He is a physiatrist specializing in sports medicine and is the Head Team Physician with the Stanford Sports Medicine Program. I spent a few days in his clinic and did some research with him on the mechanism of running injury, which was a natural tie to engineering. Very quickly, I knew that this was the route I wanted my career to take. As a bonus, Dr. Fredericson was incredibly supportive of my non-traditional background, so I felt like there was a lot of opportunity for me in sports medicine.
Can you share a bit about your blog, healthxdesign? Why did you start it and who is your target audience?
Thea: I took a medical journalism class at NYU, and one of my professors suggested that I start a blog after I told him about my background and interests. Initially, I started my blog so I could write about health and design, but I actually just switched the title of my blog to “Life by Thea” (lifebythea.com) so I could also write about other things. I realized that “health” is a very broad topic and changed my website to reflect that change :).
On your blog, you’ve expressed frustration with the American healthcare system. What would you like to see change?
Thea: This is a really difficult question that I hope to continue writing about, and in no way do I have all of the answers yet. In short, there are many inefficiencies in our system, and patients suffer daily because of systemwide problems. The fact that bureaucracy and politics impede patient care is very frustrating, especially after you realize that your patient’s quality of life depends on a simple solution. Previously, I worked at a tech startup where our engineers could quickly and precisely troubleshoot a computer bug within minutes. Compare that to 21st century medicine, where it can take hours just to locate old medical records. Modern healthcare can learn a lot from modern technology, but we need to adapt technology in the right way.
Can design help to improve healthcare?
Thea: Certainly. Design is about creating products and systems using an understanding of people and what they need. Given the right opportunities and the right team of people, we can use human- centered design to create a better healthcare system and deliver better patient care.
As a doctor interested in the intersection between engineering and healthcare, do you have an opinion regarding programs that are teaching ways to integrate these fields?
Thea: When I was applying, I did not look into these new medical schools, so I cannot speak to their curricula. One thing I can say, though, is that medicine and engineering are two very rigorous fields of study. Despite having now dedicated four years to engineering and another four years to medicine, I do not consider myself an expert in either discipline. Even after undergrad, many of my engineering friends went on to pursue master’s degrees and PhDs before working in the industry. Similarly, medicine also requires over a decade of training before being able to practice independently, and the route is jam- packed with board exams and other accreditation requirements. I could see this making sense if students begin medical training with some engineering background, but I think it would otherwise be extremely difficult to expect students with no engineering background to become competent in both fields after only four years.
Rather than continue to add requirements to our packed curriculum, I think that medical schools should adopt more of a liberal arts approach. Rather than restricting what we can spend our time learning, medical schools should allow students to dedicate their other 10,000 hours to mastering a medically relevant subject of their choice.
As Prasad Setty, VP of People Analytics at Google, once said, “Give people freedom, and they will amaze you.” Given more time and support, I think that medical students can do truly amazing things. I proposed some of these ideas in a TED talk-style discussion at Stanford Medicine X, which can be found here.
Do you have questions for Thea? Questions for us? Do you want to be featured in our next What is Medical School Really Like? post? Know someone else who you’d love to see featured? Are there questions you’d like us to ask our students in this series? LET US KNOW!
You can learn more about Thea by checking out her blog.
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• Carle Illinois College of Medicine: Integrating Engineering and Medicine, a podcast episode
• What is Medical School Really Like?, interviews with real med school students
• All You Need to Know About Residency Applications and Matching
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