June 13, 2024

BY KIM BELLARD

I’ve been thinking a lot about medical education lately, for two unrelated reasons.  The first is the kerfuffle between US News and World Report and some of the nation’s top – or, at least, best known – medical schools over the USN&WR medical school rankings.  The second is an announcement by the University of Texas at Austin that it is planning to offer an online Masters program in Artificial Intelligence.

As the old mathematician joke goes, the connection is obvious, right?  OK, it may need a little explaining.

USN&WR has made an industry out of its rankings, including for colleges, hospitals, business schools, and, of course, medical schools. The rankings have never been without controversy, as the organizations being ranked don’t always agree with the methodology, and some worry that their competitors may fudge the data.   Last year it was law schools protesting; this year it is medical schools.

Harvard Medical School started the most recent push against the medical school rankings, based on:

…the principled belief that rankings cannot meaningfully reflect the high aspirations for educational excellence, graduate preparedness, and compassionate and equitable patient care that we strive to foster in our medical education programs…Ultimately, the suitability of any particular medical school for any given student is too complex, nuanced, and individualized to be served by a rigid ranked list, no matter the methodology.

Several other leading medical schools have now also announced their withdrawals, including Columbia, Mt. Sinai, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania.  

Now, I am no expert on the methodology and don’t have any particular love towards USN&WR, but I do find rankings to be informative.  As the USN&WR CEO said in response to the HMS withdrawal: “Our mission is to help prospective students make the best decisions for their educational future…we believe students deserve access to all the data and information necessary to make the right decision.”  I mean, who could argue that?

Evidently the medical schools.  I’ve seen lots of reasons cited for their withdrawals, but what I have not seen are suggestions for alternatives – how to make the rankings better, how to more accurately gauge “quality” of medical schools, how to fairly compare different medical schools.  I guess if you are Harvard or Stanford you believe your superiority is obvious.

I’ve brought this up on Twitter and gotten some interesting responses, especially from physicians – e.g., that medical school attended isn’t an indication of how good or bad a doctor will be, and that medical school actually doesn’t matter as much as where doctors do their residency. Those may be very valid arguments, but they leave me to conclude that we not only don’t know which medical schools are the “best,” we don’t even know if medical school has any real bearing on the quality/competence of the physicians it produces (not that we can measure that either).  

As with most things in healthcare, quality is too complex for the professionals to figure out, so they’ll punt to the patients to figure it out for themselves.

I’ve written before about how, in 2023, it makes no sense that we have parallel educational tracks for M.D.s and D.O.s, or, indeed, that our medical education system takes such a narrow and outdated view towards “health.”  Medical schools and graduate medical education programs have become an end unto themselves, and it’s no surprise that training physicians in the U.S. is a longer and more expensive process than anywhere in the world – not that we can show we have better physicians or those physicians achieve better outcomes as a result, of course.

We should be fundamentally rethinking how we train physicians, which brings me to the UT AI program.  

Online graduate school programs are no longer new.  There are a number of them now, for a number of degrees (and, in fact, USN&WR has rankings for them).  It’s not new for UT either; UT started offering an online masters program in computer science in 2019, and in data science in 2021.  But with the explosion of interest in AI, and taking advantage of $20 million in funding from the National Science Funding, UT is now adding this program.

The UT announcement brags that its Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence (MSAI) “will be the first large-scale degree program of its kind and the only master’s degree program in AI from a top-ranked institution to be priced close to $10,000.”  That is considerably cheaper than an in-person program. 

The program will not require an undergraduate degree in computer science but candidates will need some technical expertise.  Professor Adam Klivans, director of the new program, told The New York Times the degree was “something working professionals can participate in to learn the expertise their companies need without leaving their jobs.”

He further says:

The fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning have seen unprecedented growth over the last 10 years.  Our goal is to ensure that every qualified student can access a premier education in AI, one that is keeping pace with this rapidly evolving field. With the MSAI program, we have removed geographic barriers entirely and significantly lowered the cost barrier of graduate study. For our students, this a game changer.

Eric Busch, director of the Computer and Data Science Online program, added: “It’s not just an ‘online degree.’ It’s an immersive and connected community of learners and a credential from UT Austin that opens doors.”

Healthcare does have many online programs, but not, as far as I can tell, for medical school.  Medical schools are starting to use virtual reality, but only as a training tool, not as a replacement for in-person classes.  They’re tip-toeing when they should be taking great leaps.

Where are the medical schools that are seeking, to paraphrase Professor Klivans, to ensure that every qualified student can access a premier medical education, one that is keeping pace with that rapidly evolving field, to remove geographic barriers and to significantly reduce the cost barrier of medical education?

So to all the medical schools upset about the USN&WR rankings: yeah, keep worrying about that.  Keep raising your prices, while raising alarm bells about looming physician shortages (and the associated need for funding increase).  Meanwhile, someone, somewhere, is going to take UT’s AI example and develop an online medical school program that is more geographically available, more open to a wider range of students, more immersive and interactive, and much cheaper.  

Welcome to MedEd in an AI Era.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor

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