Pre-med students gain an international perspective

Global Med Prep Scholars at the Great Wall of China
Pre-med students in Washington University’s Global MedPrep Scholars Program visit the Great Wall of China before their semester of shadowing doctors and studying at Fudan University begins.

Pre-med student Jenny Liu, Arts & Sciences Class of 2016, wanted a more global perspective on her field before going to medical school, so she applied to the Global MedPrep Scholars Program, which sends students to Shanghai for a semester. Students take classes at Fudan University, study Chinese and shadow doctors. Liu did her shadowing in a Western-style community hospital, a psychological clinic and a traditional Chinese medical practice. At each location there were vast differences in approach.

“I sat with one of the doctors [at the Western- style hospital] for daily rounds one day, and within an hour she saw 20 patients,” Liu recalls. Patients didn’t make an appointment. Instead, they took a number when they arrived. “Usually, the place was crammed with people, and they would just come and go; come and go.”

It was a stark contrast to the traditional Chinese medical practice.

“The doctors would sit with patients for a while and ask them about day-to-day things,” she says. “They would check the patients’ pulses with their hands instead of a stethoscope and would ask the patients to stick out their tongues, so they could observe if it was too dry or what color it was.”

The experience changed Liu’s perspective on medicine. “I realized medicine can sometimes be seen as culture,” she says.

Such insights are what Gregory Polites, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine, wants students to learn when they complete the Global MedPrep Scholars Program, which he oversees.

“We’re looking for students who are interested in global health and have an interest in how medicine is practiced in other parts of the world,” he says. “China’s system is similar to our system in some ways and very different in others. This program gives them a first-hand view of the similarities and differences in a way they will never forget.”

Polites took over the Global MedPrep Scholars Program in 2014. Previously, it was called the Pre-Health Semester in Shanghai, but Polites re-tooled it, gearing the program more exclusively toward pre-med students.

Polites also oversees the MedPrep courses at WashU. The required “MedPrep I” covers what to expect on the journey to becoming a physician, from the medical school application process to eventual specialty board certification. Between 200 to 300 students enroll in the class each semester, allowing Polites to easily spread the word about the Global MedPrep Scholars Program. Since he’s taken it over, the program has quadrupled in size.

“I think having a large group was really valuable,” says Naveen Jain, Arts & Sciences Class of 2016, who, like Liu, was part of the inaugural fall 2014 cohort. “You get a group of people who have similar goals. I’m still good friends with a lot of people I met during the program.”

Though Polites oversees the program, Judy Mu, senior lecturer in Chinese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture, stays with the students in Shanghai, acting as the university liaison while Polites returns to campus to teach and fulfill his clinical and medical school obligations.

For Jain, the program was eye-opening. “When you see how health care differs in China, it makes you wonder why things are the way they are in America. Thinking about why our medical system is structured the way it is and how we might improve it is important for anyone who wants to eventually be a physician.”

Jain, like the rest of the participants, worked in a Western-style hospital and a traditional-Chinese-medicine practice. From the latter, he learned about viewing the body as a holistic system. But from the experience as a whole, he learned about a problem that affects medical centers around the world.

“Most people in China, whether from the big city or a rural province, all converge on the same medical centers, but the types of care they receive are vastly different,” he says. “The experience really made me cognizant of those types of disparities, and that’s something I want to address as a physician here in the United States.”

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments.