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Competitive Culture in Medical Education is Destructive for Students

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When Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species in 1859, he revolutionized human perceptions of nature, survival, and power. The world had never seen such an explanation for these themes stemming from any place other than religion, and Darwin’s work is now considered fundamentally important in the life sciences.

However, despite Darwin once writing that “it’s not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change,” people have continued to misinterpret his work.

Joseph Fisher coined the term social Darwinism in 1877. The term rapidly spread and became representative of the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to society and humans. Since then, social Darwinism has become far less respectable as a mode of thinking. Academics realize that it seems to excuse power struggles, oppression, systematic inequality, and more. And yet, the practices of social Darwinism are as prevalent as ever, and in few places more so than in the United States medical field.

Competition over Cooperation

Every year, medical students are forced into opposition by a system that prioritizes competition over cooperation and collaboration. Acceptance rates to medical school around the country continue to drop, while the shortage of doctors in America and the world continues to grow.

A look into the U.S. medical college acceptance rates reveals that for the vast majority of schools, less than 5 percent of applicants receive an offer of admission. Upon acceptance, there is still no relief for the weary medical students. They are aware that they must maintain an overwhelmingly high-grade point average, fight for research opportunities, and compete against their peers, but not without also demonstrating leadership and participating in extracurriculars.

Any interaction with a current or former medical student will reveal that this system is far more toxic and damaging than beneficial. The medical industry and college system must reform this system, for it is clear that prioritizing competition over cooperation is a mistake and teaches future doctors faulty communication skills, poor leadership abilities, and a lack of compassion in the medical field overall.

In the medical field, communication is key. A misplaced decimal or misunderstood request can be a life-altering or life-ending mistake. So why are so many medical students discouraged from working in teams and helping build upon each others’ weaknesses and share each others’ strengths?

“You just can’t risk doing anything that may make you do worse or your peers do better,” said Baker Welch, a pre-medical student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And you can’t trust anybody.”

Competition is Destructive

Medical students are actively discouraged from a team-oriented approach by a cut-throat culture stemming from ignorance in the medical field. Contrary to the views of the industry, competition is actually destructive for students, whereas cooperation fosters a better learning environment.

Lecturer Alfie Kohn addressed this in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition in which he writes that competition “is an American cultural addiction” and that “resistance to competition is viewed as suspicious un-American.”

Kohn specifically critiques the consequences of competition for causing anxiety, self-servitude, and weak interpersonal skills. The impact of these consequences on students is catastrophic, which becomes apparent when viewing individuals microscopically or masses of people through statistics.

The American Medical Student Association reported that suicide rates among medical students are higher than any other school setting. Over 20 percent of medical students suffer from depression. The medical college system has largely ignored these issues for decades. This ignorance does nothing for those suffering, and the problems stemming from the competitive culture in medicine seem only to be growing deeper roots in the industry itself.

Around 45 percent of medical students feel burnt out far before graduation and beginning a professional career, making it is easy to see why apathy pervades the medical industry, from the practices of pharmaceutical companies to the behavior of individual physicians.

The self-serving nature of competition instills the belief among the competitors that success is equivalent to winning out over others. In reality, success in the medical industry relies far more heavily on the ability to collaborate to solve problems, communicate with precision and concision, and demonstrate compassion and empathy.

Malicious Effects

The malicious effects of competition can be observed throughout each and every gear that keeps American society operational. But in a field that demands the ability to work closely with others, utilizing a system that favors competitiveness rather than cooperation is essentially self-inflicting a wound.

However, unlike the self-hard scars appearing on medical students across the nation, this is a wound that does not heal naturally over time. The medical industry must actively employ a reformed vision of medical education that encourages teamwork and mutualistic effort over conflict and contention.

As Darwin once said, “it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” It is time that we become more responsive to change, and promote these positively effective systems of learning. Furthermore, it is essential to do so to avoid a medical field drained of concerned, caring physicians and saturated with power-hungry competitors.


DISCLAIMER! The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The College Post.

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