Standing out in medical school applications and interviews can seem difficult, and I found that when writing my application trying to include original elements was quite tricky when others had done very similar volunteering/extra curriculars and subjects.
One area that I think can be easier to do a bit differently to everyone else is when reading around or thinking about medicine. Universities will certainly look favourably on any extra academic reading you have done around particular scientific subject areas that you enjoy, but thinking more broadly about topics linked to medicine in society will show that you are thinking beyond university and your future career as a doctor, and the interesting ethical and moral dilemmas that can arise. There are definitely a few favourite books for aspiring medics to read (When Breath Becomes Air, Being Mortal, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat), and while they are all fascinating for different reasons, you don’t need me to tell you to go and read them! I also imagine that admissions teams may well have heard a few anecdotes from those books over the years.
I wanted to share a couple of things I have watched/listened to recently, and some of the areas they got me thinking about. Hopefully this can inspire you to look beyond the usual yourself, and to start considering the points of interest and discussion in other things you read, watch and listen to, and will hopefully be useful in applications in demonstrating your passion for the wider aspects of medicine.
It’s a Sin
‘It’s a Sin’ is a short TV series that was shown on channel 4, and depicts the experiences of a group of gay men and their friends living in London throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. I think one of the reasons the show has been so impactful is the balance it strikes between being at times hilarious and fun, contrasted with scenes of great poignancy and sadness, whilst educating many on a topic they lack understanding on. As someone with an interest in sexual health, I felt I had a good basic knowledge of HIV, but still found that I ended up doing some frantic googling whilst watching the show to try and understand the medical background regarding what was going on! For example, one of the characters begins to have seizures and is eventually diagnosed with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy – a disease caused by the JC virus which leads to inflammation of white matter, and has a mortality rate of 30-50% in the first few months[i]. What I found more shocking was realising that in the case of this character, the Public Health Act 1984 allowed the involuntary detention of the character in hospital, as at the time health authorities didn’t fully understand the transmission of HIV, so felt that any patients allowed to remain out in public could be a risk to others. While the act is no longer applied in this way, interestingly it formed the legal basis of the ‘Stay at Home’ order put in place in 2020 relating to COVID-19! While one of the amazing things about medicine is the constant evolution of understanding and treatment of diseases, it is still quite shocking to me in such recent times HIV has gone from a disease that was a death sentence and had huge levels of social stigma and shame attached, to one now that those on effective treatment can live long and healthy lives. However, stigma is still very real for many people with the condition today, and organisations such as the Terrence Higgins Trust are doing a lot of valuable work to try and further educate the public and debunk myths, for example through the U=U campaign (undetectable viral load for patients on medications = untransmissible).
Whilst the treatment of HIV and life prospects for those with the disease have completely changed, stigma persists. How may this affect efforts to combat the disease? As doctors what role do we have in fighting this? Are there any other areas in medicine you can think of where stigma plays a large role in patient experience?
HIV in the 1980s was a public health crisis, with lots of scaremongering and misinformation being spread. Are there any parallels you can draw between this and the COVID pandemic? Are there any lessons we can learn from the HIV crisis that could be applied today?
‘Freezing Time’ is a podcast by author Sophia Money-Coutts that documents her journey as a 35 year old single heterosexual women through egg freezing. The series is over 10 parts – and is a collection of voice notes, chats between her and her friends/family and interviews with various fertility experts and women around the world who have had different experiences of fertility and treatment. From a scientific viewpoint, the clear explanations given were very useful in understanding the differences between IVF, egg freezing and other aspects of fertility treatment, as well as the difference between ‘social’ and ‘medical’ egg freezing. ‘Social’ egg freezing described what Sophia was undergoing – privately paying to have eggs frozen, whereas ‘medical’ egg freezing describes cases where women will be undergoing necessary medical treatment e.g. chemotherapy that puts their future fertility at risk. A highlight of the series was an interview with an Egyptian woman Reem Mehanna, who in 2019 was the first woman in Egypt to have her eggs frozen. She decided to announce it via social media to try and encourage conversations around women’s choices and autonomy, a decision seen as brave by many but criticised by others, in what can still be a conservative society. Other areas I found thought provoking included discussions around the privilege in terms of financing such procedures, and the parallels with disparities in availability of IVF on the NHS across differing postcodes. Also raised was the notion that egg freezing is marketed as a ‘safety net’ for women, and indeed offered free by some private companies like Google to their employees. Currently it does not have nearly the same success rates as conceiving naturally at a younger age, and so whilst technology is still developing this promotion by private companies could be seen as misleading to women.
Does everyone have the ‘right’ to have children? Should the NHS fund IVF or other fertility treatment?
The first IVF baby was born in 1978 – what could the next 50 years look like for reproductive technology? What ethical and moral dilemmas could arise because of this?
A few more shows/podcasts to consider
Everyday Emergency: The MSF Podcast (online)
Transitioning Teens (BBC)
By Dr Fiona Duff.