How Future Pediatricians Should Choose a Medical School

Regardless of whether an aspiring physician intends to become a pediatrician, it’s wise to attend a medical school with a solid pediatrics curriculum, according to pediatricians, who note that many types of doctors interact with children on a regular basis.

Anesthesiologists, emergency medicine physicians, ear-nose-and-throat doctors, orthopedic surgeons and psychiatrists frequently encounter kids, for instance. A diagnostic radiologist may read the X-ray of a sick or injured child, and an oncologist may treat a child with leukemia.

Because a child’s body is dramatically different than an adult’s, a child may have medical concerns that a grown-up would not, experts say. Even if children and adults suffer from the same ailment, an appropriate therapy for children may not be a good fit for adults, and vice versa. That means future doctors who intend to treat children need training on childhood health concerns.

Furthermore, a high-quality pediatrics rotation will cultivate skills that are useful in all areas of medicine, such as the ability to explain complicated health information in a down-to-earth way that the patient can easily understand — “an essential skill for any clinician,” says Dr. Katherine O’Donnell, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and undergraduate medical education director at Boston Children’s Hospital.

She notes that because children who exhibit the same symptom of illness — like vomiting — are more or less likely to have certain health conditions depending on their age, medical students in strong pediatrics programs learn to account for demographic characteristics while searching for the correct diagnosis. That person-focused approach is helpful in all medical fields, O’Donnell says.

Why Someone Might Choose to Become a Pediatrician

The potential to have a long-lasting, positive influence on someone’s life is one of the most compelling aspects of being a pediatrician, O’Donnell says.

A child’s primary care pediatrician could conceivably treat that child not only as a baby, but also as a toddler, elementary schooler, preteen and teenager. Witnessing and facilitating a child’s development is a major plus of the profession, experts say, noting that puberty is a time of incredible transformation in the human body.

Pediatricians also have a wide range of environments they could work in, ranging from hospitals to outpatient clinics. They also have the flexibility to choose between a career as a general practitioner and a job area with a more defined focus, such as adolescent medicine. They could also opt to become a physician scientist.

There’s also a financial aspect. Dr. Tyree M.S. Winters, associate professor of pediatrics at Rowan University in New Jersey, notes that pediatricians tend to earn lower salaries than other physicians but are often eligible for special student loan forgiveness programs, especially if they work in inner cities or rural areas.

The median annual salary among U.S. pediatricians in 2020 was $232,000, among the lowest of physician specialties, according to the Medscape 2020 Physician Compensation Report. However, subspecialists in pediatrics tend to earn higher salaries than their peers in primary care. For example, the average annual U.S. salary among neonatalogists is $327,465, according to the Economic Research Institute.

Dr. Dan M. Cooper, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California–Irvine School of Medicine, says it is extremely fulfilling to help a gravely ill child get well.

“We saw our share of very sad things, but what was remarkable was the resilience — the biological resilience — that kids have and their ability to bounce back,” says Cooper, who also is associate vice chancellor for clinical and translational science and oversaw a pediatric intensive care unit for many years.

Pediatricians say their job is challenging, since it involves caring for a vulnerable population and advocating on behalf of patients who, to some degree, cannot speak for themselves. But they also note that this tough part of their profession is part of what makes it meaningful.

[See: Best Pediatrics Programs.]

Winters says he often goes out into the community to educate people about public health issues that affect children, and some pediatricians lobby public officials on policy matters that affect children.

Pediatrics frequently involves addressing health problems that a child was born with, conditions such as a congenital heart disease that the child would either suffer with or die from without medical assistance. Another interesting aspect of this medical specialty, experts say, is that it involves chatting with a patient’s parents and not just the patient, which allows pediatricians to get an outside perspective on the condition of their patients that can be useful when making treatment decisions.

Pediatricians sometimes assist children with disabilities, like autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy. Increasing the autonomy, confidence and happiness of children with disabilities is one of the many potential benefits of a career in pediatrics.

How to Identify an Outstanding Pediatrician Med School

Aspiring pediatricians should look for a medical school with an abundance of student research opportunities focused on pediatrics, and it’s ideal to find a school with a student organization that focuses on pediatrics, according to pediatrics faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“There are many wonderful medical schools that are affiliated with children’s hospitals or with pediatric programs that are outstanding,” says Dr. Cindy W. Christian, a professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn’s teaching hospital. “And so I think if you were a medical student who was really invested in a career in pediatrics, I would actually look for a school that has an incredibly strong pediatric department.”

[Read: Warning Signs of Subpar Medical Schools.]

Christian, who holds the Anthony A. Latini Endowed Chair in the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect at the hospital, explains that aspiring pediatricians should look for a program that is “not only broad but very deep,” which includes many mentorship, volunteering and research opportunities.

Dr. Leah Alexander, a pediatrician who serves as a medical consultant for the website, notes that the type of medical school that is right for a potential pediatrician depends on the type of pediatrics that fascinates him or her.

“For example, a research hospital-based medical school may be ideal for someone who has an interest in a particular subspecialty,” Alexander wrote in an email. “This can provide knowledge of how to manage rare and unusual disorders, or allow access to clinical trials and innovative care. For students who prefer a primary care pediatric focus, a medical school that offers community-based experiences may be ideal.”

Experts say that it’s desirable for a potential pediatrician to attend a school with a significant emphasis on primary care, regardless of whether he or she intends to become a primary care doctor.

“Even in the most highly subspecialized pediatric fields, I can’t underscore enough the importance of and need for a strong primary care background,” wrote Dr. McGreggor Crowley, a fellowship-trained subspecialty pediatrician whose clinical practice focuses on gastroenterology and nutrition.

“Aspiring pediatricians would benefit from a medical school emphasizing exposure to the ‘bread and butter’ of pediatrics,” says Crowley, a college admissions counselor at the IvyWise admissions consultancy and a medical researcher. “This is often found in community clinics, where well child visits are balanced with sick visits, and medical schools that place their students in these clinics graduate highly competent, empathetic pediatricians.”

[READ: What Family Medicine Is and How to Become a Family Doctor.]

Dr. Minal Ahson, an assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine, suggests that top-notch pediatric programs offer varied clinical experiences.

“It would be important to find out where the pediatrics rotations will be taking place — is it a robust university hospital … or a small community hospital with few patients? Or a stand alone children’s hospital? Patient volume and breadth of clinical cases make for a positive pediatric experience,” she wrote in an email.

Another question to investigate is whether a school often places its students into pediatrics residencies and which ones, Ahson says. “Medical students tend to go into fields in which they have had positive experiences.”

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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