In 2007, David S. Keith, DO, MSPH, found himself weighing the benefits of pursuing a career in medicine against the significant financial and time commitments it would require.
The father of two young children at the time, Dr. Keith was especially concerned about the impact giving up his full-time job at United Healthcare would have on his ability to support his family.
An interview at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) in Erie, Pennsylvania, drew Dr. Keith across the country from his Salt Lake City home—and would ultimately change the course of his career.
While visiting the osteopathic medical school, he learned of LECOM’s plan to establish a three-year accelerated primary care program, which would allow him to avoid a full year’s worth of tuition and start practicing medicine 12 months earlier than students in traditional programs.
Dr. Keith graduated in 2010 as part of LECOM’s inaugural Primary Care Scholars Pathway class. The program continues today with about 12 students participating every year; it is currently the only three-year primary care program at an osteopathic medical school. LECOM also offers a three-year DO degree program for applicants who are certified physician assistants.
Interested in finishing medical school in three years instead of four? Here are the pros and cons of doing so.
Pro: LECOM’s curriculum is nearly identical to a four-year program’s coursework.
LECOM’s accelerated program aligns with all the existing standards prescribed by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA)—even the one that stipulates colleges provide four years of instruction, which COCA defines as roughly 130 weeks. The program achieves this by having students attend classes and clinical rotations during summer breaks and take certain courses as independent directed studies.
“When we initially presented our curriculum to COCA, they accepted it with our first presentation because we proved to them that those three years of education were equivalent to the four years that were traditional,” says Richard A. Ortoski, DO, the clinical director of LECOM’s three-year primary care program.
Pro: Receive a 25% discount on your medical education.
Dr. Keith, who graduated with $220,000 in medical education debt, estimates he saved roughly $75,000 by participating in LECOM’s three-year program.
“My wife’s biggest concern about medical school was the amount of debt I would accrue,” he says. “It was nice to have an option where my debt wouldn’t be so insurmountable.”
Pro: Start practicing a year earlier.
Not only did Dr. Keith graduate with less debt, he was able to start practicing a full year early. This head start was crucial for his family because the day after he finished residency, his wife had the couple’s fifth child. To support a wife and five children on a resident’s salary would have been challenging, Dr. Keith notes.
Con: Compressed program means less time off for vacation and test prep.
Students in LECOM’s accelerated program attend classes during the first summer and clinical rotations during the second. Without breaks, the training can be intense and leave little time to prepare for board exams.
Having obtained his MSPH while working full time, Dr. Keith says he was used to constant studying. Still, he says the inaugural class struggled with their second board exam because their schedules were so tight—but that leadership provided more study time for the second class.
Con: Committing to one specialty at the outset.
Students in LECOM’s three-year program sign a contract pledging to pursue a family medicine or general internal medicine residency and to practice primary care for at least five years after finishing residency. If you’re on the fence about your specialty, this program isn’t for you.
Con: Perception by some that three years isn’t enough.
Naysayers argue that as the pace of medical advances increases, medical students need, at the very least, four years to learn everything they need to know to begin residency.
Dr. Ortoski counters this argument with the point that his three-year students have obtained equivalent scores on COMLEX exams to four-year students—and that’s with less time to study.