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Criminal Background Checks to Become Part

Criminal Background Checks to Become Part
Of Medical School Application Process

BY Dana Forde

In addition to daunting applications, lengthy essays and grueling exams, students applying to medical school may now face another obstacle: a criminal background check.

Earlier this year, the Association of American Medical Colleges approved a national system for completing criminal background checks for medical school applicants. Eventually, the system will be available to all 125 AAMC-member medical schools.

State legislatures see the system as an added protection for vulnerable patients. Others, however, fear that a national background check system may disproportionately affect minority medical school applicants who had run-ins with the law years before applying to medical school. 

Some say the background checks will deter some minority students from even applying. If proven true, that reality would be a setback for medical schools struggling to increase minority enrollment. Racial minorities comprise less than 10 percent of the country’s physician workforce, according to a spring 2005 report from the AAMC.

“It’s detrimental for them to overcome this hurdle,” says Shaka Bahadu, a first-year medical student at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College. “If you have a criminal record, it’s just one more excuse for them to cut you.”

At historically Black Howard University’s College of Medicine, an AAMC-member school, administrators have been assured that the new background checks won’t negatively affect any one group. However, Dr. Dawn L. Cannon, associate dean for student affairs and admissions at the college, says some AAMC officials have acknowledged that a sometimes biased criminal justice system could mean a disproportionately high number of minorities will be scrutinized.

Dr. Robert A. Witzburg, associate dean and director of admissions at Boston University School of Medicine, says medical schools should take this on, rather than have it imposed by outside authorities. However, schools should evaluate prior infractions in the proper context.

“The criminal justice system in America is not blind to race or socioeconomic status,” he says. “Individuals already facing barriers in access to the medical profession will now face yet another one.”

While there may be some concerns about the new system, the idea for the national system for conducting background checks came from medical schools, says Dr. Robert Sabalis, associate vice president for student affairs and programs at AAMC.

Under the national system, applicants would pay one fee to conduct a background check that would be available at any AAMC-member medical school.

According to Sabalis, criminal background checking procedures are needed to comply with state and hospital requirements. The process is not aimed at punishing applicants for juvenile offenses, he says, but rather to hold them accountable for offenses that were committed as adults. Various state and hospital regulations require background checks since medical students have access to patients and sensitive medical records.

AAMC’s advisory committee has suggested that medical school officials take criminal background information into account only after making a conditional decision to admit a student. Sabalis says every medical school will likely develop its own policies and procedures for determining which past offenses raise concern, but violent offenses would definitely warrant scrutiny.

“All we can do is present guidelines and potential best practices for their consideration,” he says. “Five to 10 percent of applicants will have hits that may warrant further investigation.” 

Many medical schools already maintain individual and somewhat informal background checking methods. While Howard’s College of Medicine does not maintain its own criminal background checking system, Cannon says college officials use a secondary application for would-be students to list past felonies, arrests or convictions.

“We are hopeful that we will not see a disproportionate number of minority applicants who are affected” under the AAMC’s system, she says.

AAMC representatives are currently reviewing criminal background check vendors, says Sabalis. After a vendor is selected, officials will create a pilot system for completing background checks by the summer of 2007. Accepted applicants to the 2008 entering class at ten schools will be subjected to the pilot system and the final system chosen will be provided to all interested medical schools for the 2009 entering class.

Although the debate over the background checking system remains contentious, Dennis Spencer, who is pursuing a medical degree at Cornell as well as a doctorate at Rockefeller University, says it will have little effect on minority applicants.

“For those of us who had to overcome odds, it’s probably one of the least significant obstacles we would have encountered if we’ve reached the point where a school would even be interested in reading our application,” he says.

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