By Clemens GainesOctober 30, 2018
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Two Army doctors returned to their alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, on Oct. 18 to talk to cadets about how to get into medical school and the value of serving Soldiers as physicians.
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Benjamin Palmer, a 1996 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy from Kingsport, Tennessee, spoke to the West Point Medical Society about both the process of getting into medical school and the rewards in serving Soldiers and their families as a doctor. He was joined in the discussion by Maj. (Dr.) Mary Alice Noel, a 2008 West Point graduate from Crane Hill, Alabama, from the Family Medicine Residency Faculty at Martin Army Community Hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Both doctors earned their medical degrees via different Department of Defense programs: Palmer attended the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine under the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), while Noel attended the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland.
The doctors addressed an audience of more than 50 cadets from all classes. The West Point Medical Society is an informal group for cadets to explore options in the medical career field, specifically how to get into a medical school, and to meet with medical professionals and discuss specialties.
According to Noel, the cadets asked thoughtful questions which ranged from gauging practical experience, living at USUHS as a medical student versus West Point as a cadet, to other questions regarding work/life balance, and how to find opportunities to boost the appeal of their medical school applications.
"Though I had graduated 10 years ago," said Noel, "I found myself quickly back in their shoes (low-quarters, if you will) with remembering all the pressing, urgent tasks that would sometimes subvert the important, and often time-consuming, tasks that were critical for getting into medical school."
While Noel went straight to USUHS from graduation, Palmer took a different route. His path to becoming a doctor of osteopathy included an intentional delay in going to medical school and that was one of his key talking points to the cadets.
"You do not have to go immediately to medical school right after graduation. You can take time to qualify in your branch and then begin the process," said Palmer, the command surgeon for the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
Palmer earned a degree in environmental science before qualifying in his branch (ordnance) and serving in Germany as a company commander for the 61st Ordnance Brigade. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in management information systems and then applied to medical school. He was selected under the HPSP and entered the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in 2004.
Both doctors emphasized to the cadets that the Defense Department scholarship programs are very competitive and that an applicant must have the "right academic stuff" to qualify. Beyond excellence in the undergraduate years, they have to be highly motivated.
Every applicant must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The standardized multiple-choice examination is designed to assess an applicant's problem solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts and principles as a prerequisite to the study of medicine.
Scores are reported in four sections: biological and biochemical foundations of living systems, chemical and physical foundations of biological systems, psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior, and critical analysis and reasoning skills.
Beyond the challenging subject matter, cadets must also understand the financial realities. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the average tuition, fees, and health insurance costs are $142,816 for medical school at a public college and $228,776 for a private school. These figures do not include living expenses for four years.
In terms of rank and salary, a student in HPSP becomes an Army Reserve second lieutenant and is paid a stipend. At USUHS, students are paid at the rank of second lieutenant, including the basic allowance for housing. Students are promoted to captain upon graduation from both.
An officer completing a medical school under the HPSP has a four year active duty requirement while a USUHS graduate has a seven year commitment. Attending a residency program in a medical specialty (pediatrics, surgery, etc.) will require an additional time commitment.
"You have to be motivated for this entire process and lifestyle," noted Palmer. "It is a total commitment, and in my case, it included my family since I was older when I applied. In terms of motivation, my wife was in labor with our daughter on the day I was scheduled to take the MCAT, so I took it later."
It is also possible for a Soldier to get selected for these programs and attend medical school. Palmer is aware of 2nd. Lt. James Kimball, a former EOD noncommissioned officer from the 71st Ordnance Group (EOD), who is currently a student at USUHS.
Joining the doctors with vital information on the programs was Sgt. 1st Class Angel Cruz, the medical recruiter from New Windsor, New York.
"Each year approximately 15-22 cadets are accepted to medical schools. Their options are to apply to USUHS or to apply to a civilian medical school. The average of those who receive the HPSP is around eight."
Explaining the programs to the cadets is vital to Army medical corps recruiting.
"This event is super helpful as it provides the cadets insight on the paths to become a physician and how the Army, and the Army Medical Department, can assist them," said Cruz.
"Certainly serving as an armor officer or an infantry officer, or as an ordnance officer as I did initially, is valuable to the Army," said Palmer. "Every class of cadets is steeped in the concept of service before self. There are many ways to serve but service as a doctor to Soldiers and their families is important for both the individual and Army readiness."