Dr. Kamal Kalia remembers his first experience with a doctor-shadowing program. It was long before he became a neurologist at Holyoke Medical Center.
“I was 13 years old,” he told a group of area high-school students preparing to undertake a similar experience last month. “I got to go around with some very nice doctors, and I was hooked. Hopefully, we can hook some of you today.”
That was the hope of the Hampden District Medical Society (HDMS), which kicked off its annual Doctor for a Day program with a breakfast at Holyoke Medical Center before sending 35 high-school juniors and seniors across the region for the day, to accompany pediatricians, hospitalists, obstetricians, and a wide range of other physicians to observe a typical day in their lives.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for students, as well as doctors,” said Dr. Mohan Rao, who works in internal medicine in Springfield and has taken part in the program for about five years. “I hope many of the students will continue to explore the medical profession and ultimately decide to be physicians.”
Time will tell whether that will come to pass. But in an era of professional shortages in many fields, the medical society believes it’s a worthy goal.
And it’s a realistic goal as well, said Suzanne Skibinski, HDMC executive director. She said the society keeps track of students in the day-long program who have eventually gone on to medical school. One of those, a Russian immigrant, is now in medical school and spoke recently at a society meeting.
“She explained to the audience that, after she participated, she wanted to go into medicine,” Skibinski said. “It shows how valuable this day is. They’ll go into brain surgery, see babies delivered — it’s a powerful experience.”
And it’s one open only to area students who express an interest in a medical career. Of more than 100 who applied by writing an essay, only 35 were chosen to take part in the Doctor for a Day program.
“Somewhere inside you there is a spark of interest in medicine, or you wouldn’t have signed up for this program. You may be wondering whether you have what it takes to make it in one of the world’s most honored and rewarding professions,” said Dr. Alicia Ross, medical director of Hematology and Oncology services at Holyoke Medical Center, in her opening remarks. And comments from the students backed up that assumption.
“I came here to learn about what it would like to be a doctor,” said Cristina Carignan, a junior at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School.
Likewise, Laura Hegarty, a junior at Cathedral High School, explained that she will benefit by seeing what a doctor does on a typical day.
“I want to see what doctors go through each and every day,” agreed Lindsay Larrabee, a junior at Westfield High School. “I hope to pursue a career in medicine.”
Ross explained that the program is modeled after Girl Scouts of Today — Physicians of Tomorrow, a program launched in 1995 to foster mentoring relationships between young women and local women physicians.
The majority of students who took part last month were female — which is not necessarily a bad thing, Ross said, because medicine has been, in the past, a difficult field for women to enter into, and even though times have changed, it’s still good to provide teenage girls with role models in health care as they prepare to make college and career choices.
“With the changes in the profession in recent years, it increasingly has become an attractive career for someone who wants to balance work with raising children,” Ross said, adding that the flexibility of the medical field is an added draw.
For instance, “ER medicine has a wonderful lifestyle if you’re considering having a family,” she explained. “You can do three 12-hour shifts a week, and then you’re not on call. This new image, medical educators say, helps explain why the medical profession has crossed a major threshold.”
Indeed, Ross noted, the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Medical Colleges reported earlier this year that, for the first time on record, more women than men applied for admission to U.S. medical schools last fall.
And at a time when shortages exist in many specialties of medicine, the surge of interest by women is a plus. The challenge, at times, is reaching young women with the message that health care is an exciting field, and that’s where events like Doctor for a Day come in.
Dr. Heidi Kolek, a gastroenterologist at Noble Hospital, is another repeat participant in the program. “It has always been a lot of fun to share with students what it’s really like,” she said.
“We get a hands-on experience,” said Stephanie Grant, a Westfield High School junior, “and that will help me decide whether I want to be a doctor.”
Decisions about what career to pursue are never easy, Ross told the students, and medicine might seem like a daunting choice.
“The doctors you know seem wise, confident, and in control. But once they were just like you — scared, excited, confused, and wondering what the world has to offer. Since then, your doctors have traveled a long, challenging, and exciting road.”
It’s a road onto which a few more high school students might have just stepped.