TARPON SPRINGS — Her physician grandfather had no exposure to patients until his third year of medical school. But Alyssa Benjamin has already scrubbed in for surgeries, worked on her suture skills and even helped remove a suspicious mole off her boss' neck.
And she hasn't even applied to medical school.
Benjamin, a Dunedin resident and sophomore at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, was one of about a half dozen undergraduates in a premedical internship program this summer at Florida Hospital North Pinellas.
Started by surgical oncologist Douglas Reintgen, the program helps students shore up their credentials before they apply to medical school — and possibly give them a leg up once they make it through medical school and start angling for a limited number of residency slots.
"You've got to do something that makes your application stand out," said Reintgen, also a professor at the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine.
The early shadowing program reflects the hyper-competitive nature of becoming a physician. In 2013, the nation's medical schools received a record 48,000 applications; about 20,000 were accepted and enrolled, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. At USF Health, several thousand people applied last year to the medical school, which had slots for about 120, said Dr. Bryan Bognar, vice dean for educational affairs for the USF medical school.
Students in Reintgen's program said they're thinking ahead even to residencies after they complete medical school. Those training slots are in short supply that's expected to tighten even more as medical and osteopathic schools continue to churn out higher numbers of graduates.
Last year, several hundred medical school graduates didn't get a residency, which is key to becoming a licensed physician, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Bognar said nearly every successful applicant has some sort of shadowing experience. The increasing number of medical school applicants almost "compels students who want to be competitive to flesh out their portfolios," he said.
Those experiences may be limited for those students who are working their way through school and can't afford to do a low- or nonpaying internship. Reintgen's program at Florida Hospital pays students a small stipend.
Dr. Carol Aschenbrener, the chief medical officer of Association of American Medical Colleges, said premedical internship experiences are important in a less tangible way: They give students a sense of whether a life in medicine is really for them.
That's an important gauge before jumping into a profession in the midst of a transformation or, as some doctors have put it, a malaise. Writing for the Wall Street Journal recently, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar reported that recent surveys show a majority of doctors express "diminished enthusiasm for medicine and say they would discourage a friend or family member from entering the profession."
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Jauhar noted that most doctors said they didn't have enough time to spend with patients because of paperwork, and nearly half said they planned to reduce the number of patients they would see in the next three years or stop practicing altogether.
Corin Agoris, an intern last summer who is now a first-year medical student at USF, said he has no doubts about his future after participating in the Florida Hospital program.
"I had an inclination before," he said, "but this really confirmed it."
Now in its third year, Reintgen's program in Tarpon Springs lets students do rotations in radiology and other fields, take suture classes, observe surgeries and work on research papers. Reintgen even let this year's crop of students do a punch biopsy of a suspicious mole on his neck while under the supervision of a nurse. (Fortunately for everyone, particularly Reintgen, the mole was benign.)
While the internship focused on surgery, several students said it helped them realize they want to pursue primary care, a high-demand though less lucrative field. Anna Stamas, a University of Florida junior majoring in exercise physiology who interned last year, said she enjoyed surgery but preferred interacting with patients.
"Primary care makes a lot more sense to me," she said. Though a real obstacle to getting more students into primary care includes massive medical school debt, Stamas said she believes she'll be able to find a loan with a low interest rate. She said she can't let debt stand in the way.
"If you're really passionate about it, it doesn't matter," she said.
One recent morning, Benjamin and three other interns from 2013 scrubbed their hands — 10 seconds per finger — and tied on surgical masks before filing into a chilly operating room. The anesthetized patient was a 33-year-old woman with a suspicious mass in her breast.
"You can see the mass coming into view here," Reintgen said as they peered over.
He removed the mass, which was sent off to pathology and, not long afterward, declared benign. When it was time to stitch the patient back up, Reintgen turned to the class, standing quietly off to the side.
"You guys think you can do this now?"
Contact Jodie Tillman at (813) 226-3374 or email@example.com. Follow @JTillmanTimes.