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Three new Med School students talking.

Noelle Ekwochi is among the new crop of students entering the Medical School this fall. The incoming class is one of the school's largest in recent years.

Unusual suspects in Medical School class

University of Minnesota welcomes a diverse medical school class to help fill the state's need for physicians

By Nick Hanson

From eNews, August 30, 2007

OK, you've got a rabbi, a business executive, and an Olympic biathlete.

What do they have in common?

Not much. Except that they're among the 241 students attending the University of Minnesota Medical School this fall.

They're also contributing to a burgeoning class size, which is about 10 percent more than the usual 220, and makes this year's class one of the largest the University of Minnesota Medical School has seen in recent years.

"I had just figured out that something about my personality should put me in med school," says Olympic biathlete Carolyn Bramante, a Duluth native who had to choose between a career as an international shooting and cross-country skiing competitor or a life in medicine. "I wanted to do something more. As an athlete, in a way, you are studying the body."

While the 21-student hike may not seem like much, it's significant when you consider the need for practicing physicians in the state of Minnesota. The workforce is aging and more than 250,000 active physicians are over 55 years old, according to the American Medical Association. On top of that, first-year medical student enrollment across the country has been dropping since 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

During the past couple of years, the University of Minnesota has been tackling the problem of a shortage of primary care physician doctors in family medicine, pediatrics, and internal medicine. In 2007, about 42 percent of University of Minnesota Medical School graduates went into primary care.

About 80 percent of the 2007 entering class is from the Minnesota, so it's likely graduates will practice in their hometowns scattered in all corners of the state. In addition, 22 percent of the class stem from a multicultural background - meaning they may have a penchant to serve a typically underserved population.

"That's terrific - our students are meeting the need," says Paul White, assistant dean for admissions for the University of Minnesota Medical School.

More students are also applying to the University of Minnesota Medical School. Applications were up 22 percent this year, compared with 5 percent nationally.

"The quality didn't suffer any," he says. "This is one of the top medical schools in the United States. It's recognizing that this is a great program."

MCAT scores were high for applicants and 11 percent of the students already had advanced degrees, like Elena Zupfer.

A few years after college, Zupfer earned an M.B.A at the U's Carlson School of Management. She eventually landed a job trading bonds. But the 33-year-old volunteer-enthusiast says her job wasn't fulfilling, and decided to return to school. If she stays on track, she should be a doctor by the time she is 40 years old.

"Most of my friends think it's great, but my parents kind of think I was crazy," Zupfer says. "But when I want to do something, I want to do it."

Deborah Powell, dean of the medical school, believes more students are attracted to the University of Minnesota Medical School for several of its new initiatives. One of the newest attractions is a flexible MD program. The program allows students to take three-and-a-half to six years to complete school for the same flat cost of 11 semesters. This allows students to take a year off to volunteer, study abroad, or gain some valuable work experience in medicine or the medical industry.

Flexible MD is part of a larger program called Med 2010, a comprehensive initiative that emphasizes competency-driven learning experiences throughout the span of medical education. The shift from a time-based to a competency-based medical education program allows students to tailor their educations to their unique starting points, paces of progress, and interests, Powell says.

Yosef Wexler believes he is ready for a competency-based medical education. Wexler recently earned a degree in rabbinical ordination. And after a move back to his native home of St. Paul, the 27-year-old decided to enroll in medical school.

"It's a combination of two aspects of life that are near and dear to me," Wexler says. "What I hope to do--if patients would like--is talk about how to deal with situations and blend the philosophies of medicine and outlooks on life."

So, what will a rabbi, business executive, and Olympic biathlete have in common? In a few years, they'll have a University of Minnesota Medical School degree.