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Back to school: more pre-med students attracted to public health degrees


An increasing number of student headed to medical school are choosing majors in the College of Public Health and Human Science.

CPHHS Associate Head Advisor Carey Hilbert is seeing more students use their undergraduate degrees in public health and human sciences to prepare for careers in medicine and the allied health professions. Some choose to become physician assistants, while others pursue careers in physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing and chiropractic medicine.

Why a shift from the traditional science track to public health and human sciences?

“Schools want diversity in their population,” Carey says. “They like seeing students who aren’t all coming from chemistry, biology and biochemistry. Yes, you need science, but the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) added new emphasis in psychology, psycho-social dimensions of health and medical ethics.

Carey, who is the college’s coordinator for pre-med and and allied health professions, says that students choosing CPHHS majors to prepare for medical professions not only get a well-rounded education, but also a global perspective.

Ryan O'Neal

Ryan O’Neal is a first-year medical student at Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest

CPHHS alum Ryan O’Neal, BS ’12, is one of the students Carey has guided on the pre-med path. Ryan, who graduated with an Exercise and Sports Science (now Kinesiology) degree, is a first-year medical student at Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest in Lebanon.

Ryan says that components of his studies in the CPHHS correlate with the future of medicine, which is leaning toward a more proactive model verses the traditional reactive model in which physicians treat sick individuals.

“Asking and identifying what physicians can do to prevent disease, and looking at their patients’ diet and exercise routines is an integral component of how physicians treat their patients,” he says. “Exercise prescription is vital to preventing disease, and having the knowledge gained from a degree from the CPHHS puts an aspiring physician at an advantage when it comes to improving the quality of life for their patients.”

The pre-med path

Carey says that students interested in declaring a public health major and planning to attend medical or allied health professions school should see her by their sophomore year. She works with students to create a unique plan based on their goals, which includes weaving in science courses and ensuring students are prepared to take and pass the MCAT.

Another advantage to choosing the CPHHS as the launching pad for careers in medicine is that it opens up more options between graduation and the traditional gap year most medical schools require.

Ryan took a few years off and worked in the health care field between graduating from the CPHHS and starting at Western. He says that experience helped him define the areas of medicine he wanted to pursue. He now sees himself applying for a residency related to sports medicine, potentially in orthopedics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, or family medicine.

“Our majors have more practicality in terms of what you want to do right after college,” Carey says. “If you’re not going to get in right away and have a public health or human sciences degree, you may be able to get a job in the health field in the interim, especially if it’s in health management.”

Current CPHHS Kinesiology senior Whitley Nelson sees the benefit of choosing a major in the college. She says students are exposed to overall health and wellness topics, which will continue to be common themes in medicine.

“Lifestyle choices are what cause many of the deaths and diseases in American today,” Whitney says. “What we are learning has the potential to impact the health of our future patients. Many of the classes, labs and practicum experiences are taught with a patient-centered perspective. These experiences have us a head start in patient interactions and patient-centered care.”

Carey says CPHHS academic advisors encourage students to study what they truly enjoy, rather than what they think medical schools want to see.

“If you love sciences, then do science,” she says. “On the other hand, if you’re good at science but interested in other aspects of global health, community health, child development or how the body moves or metabolizes food, you should take courses in our college.”

Ryan says that having a plan is one of the most crucial components when preparing for the medical school admissions process.

“Your plan must include when you will take the MCAT and knowing the cost associated with applying to medical school,” he says. “It’s also wise to engage in experiences you are passionate about. Everyone in medical school is accomplished and has checked the necessary boxes to get there. Volunteering, traveling, doing an internship and conducting research are all great options to pursue. During interview day, it will be obvious what an individual is passionate about.”