Why Are So Many American Students Heading Overseas for Medical School?

Medical school wouldn't seem quite as tough if you could kick back and study on this sandy beach.
Medical school wouldn't seem quite as tough if you could kick back and study on this sandy beach.

Gaining admission to medical school can be quite challenging, and once you get in, it will likely entail four years of blood, sweat and tears. Wouldn't you prefer to do it in the Caribbean or some other exotic locale? These days, more American students are heading overseas for medical school.

What's not to love about white sandy beaches, palm trees and year-round warm weather? The benefits of getting an education abroad aren't limited to the dreamy destination, though. Some students from the United States choose to go through rigorous physician training offshore to get the experience of learning how to practice medicine in an international environment. Students gain cultural understanding that will help them in their careers, no matter where they decide to practice. They also develop a knack for being resourceful, agile and creative by serving in clinics where supplies and equipment may be limited or nonexistent. Another advantage is getting first-hand experience treating new diseases that they might rarely see in medical schools in the United States. American students who opt for medical school overseas also say they get hands-on experience with other practical skills, such as interviewing patients and documenting the medical history of those to whom they give care.

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Yet, there are arguably more reasons why American students venture off to medical school abroad. Some people suggest that it's easier to gain admission at an offshore medical school than those in the United States. Not all overseas medical schools require high MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) scores -- or any MCAT scores at all. Additionally, there are medical schools in Europe that accept students who only have a high-school diploma, albeit these are six-year degree programs. Money is another factor. Students can get their education at certain medical schools overseas for a much lower cost. Then, there's the fact that nontraditional candidates (such as those who may be leaving a military service or making a mid-life career change) have a better shot at being accepted into these schools. Medical schools in the United States may not accept these applicants because they're older or they have poor test scores.

So, if you're ready to leave your retail sales job and embark on an exciting medical education in the Caribbean, reign in that enthusiasm for now. On the next page, we'll explore some of the drawbacks to overseas medical schools.

Accreditation and Licensing of Overseas Medical Schools

At overseas medical school, you'll earn a prestigious diploma in a thrilling destination, and you may not even have to ace the MCAT. But what happens when you attempt to practice in the United States after graduating from an overseas medical school? This is where it can get tricky, so you'll need to do your due diligence before you decide which school you'll attend. Otherwise, you could end up like 54-year-old Steven Moxley. This veteran ended up living with his adult son and doing construction work because he couldn't land a residency, although he claims he was assured one when he enrolled in a Caribbean medical school [source: Hundley].

Take some precautions before applying to overseas medical schools. Find out if the school you're considering is licensed. Some are treated the same as U.S. schools, while others aren't recognized by residency programs and licensing boards in the United States. This ultimately determines whether or not you'll get to practice medicine.

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Get familiar with the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, or ECFMG, the organization charged with ensuring that physicians who have graduated from foreign medical schools are qualified to pursue a medical license in the United States [source: ECFMG]. You must be certified by the ECFMG before you can even apply to take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). This certification also permits you to enter a residency program that's accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which we'll learn about shortly.

To be eligible to apply for ECFMG certification, your school must be listed in the International Medical Education Directory (IMED) [source: ECFMG]. What's more, your graduation year must also be listed in the IMED database. If you graduate in a year that your medical school wasn't accredited by IMED, you can't apply for ECFMG certification. Essentially, this means you're barred from practicing medicine in the United States based on the diploma you hold from an unaccredited medical school.

On the next page, we'll delve into the specifics of getting a residency.

Securing a Residency After Overseas Medical School

Save the stress of being a physician for the operating room. Don't create more trouble by getting a diploma from a medical school that lacks accreditation.
Save the stress of being a physician for the operating room. Don't create more trouble by getting a diploma from a medical school that lacks accreditation.

After confirming that your prospective school meets all of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) criteria, you'll also want to make sure you can secure a residency that's recognized by the licensing boards where you intend to practice medicine. U.S. licensing boards require an applicant to complete a residency that's accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) [source: AMA]. Otherwise, your hard-earned Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) diploma will be just a worthless piece of paper in the United States.

Keep in mind that your chances of landing an ACGME-sanctioned residency may be slimmer if you're a graduate of an offshore medical school; some residency programs give preference to those who've earned diplomas from U.S. medical programs.

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Some American graduates of overseas medical schools have landed residencies at top hospitals in the United States and say their medical school training is just as good as any education they could have gotten at home. Yet, others have been unable to snag a residency at any ACGME-approved program. Not only are they not practicing medicine, they're also carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

Whether you've studied Latin before or will do so for the first time in medical school, remember this phrase: Caveat emptor, meaning "buyer beware." It's never to early to talk with admissions officers and professors at residency programs, as well as with representatives at the licensing boards where you plan to practice medicine. Before you even consider applying to an overseas medical school, learn the ins and outs of becoming licensed. Speaking with several licensed physicians who've graduated from medical schools abroad as well as those who've earned degrees from U.S. medical schools can also help you make the best decision about where to get your medical education.

Examine the links on the next page to learn more about overseas medical schools as well as residency programs and how to practice medicine in the United States.

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Sources

  • American Medical Association. "Medical Licensure." 2010. (March 10, 2010) http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/education-careers/becoming-physician/medical-licensure.shtml
  • Bianco, Carl, M.D. "How Becoming A Doctor Works." HowStuffWorks.com. (March 10, 2010) https://www.howstuffworks.com/becoming-a-doctor.htm
  • Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. "About ECFMG." (March 10, 2010) http://www.ecfmg.org/about.html
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica. "Medical Education: Requirements for Practice." (March 10, 2010) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/372218/medical-education/35522/Requirements-for-practice
  • Hundley, Kris."Investigators want to know if the quality of offshore medical schools justifies the cost." St. Petersburg Times. Jan. 1, 2010. (March 10, 2010) http://www.tampabay.com/news/health/medicine/article1061189.ece