Shahida Mizan holding a match day sign with two people.
Shahida Mizan, center, is part of a small group of students at the VCU School of Medicine who have undergone a rigorous assessment of their competency to graduate in three years instead of the traditional four. These students are guaranteed acceptance into a residency program at VCU Health. (Courtesy of Shahida Mizan)

A medical degree in 3 years? For students in this new VCU program, it’s a reality.

Only 15% of U.S. medical schools offer competency-based graduation. These programs allow students to graduate in 3 years instead of 4, and can help reduce student debt and address physician shortages.

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Janina Pearce, M.D., Ph.D., didn’t think twice when, as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, an opportunity arose to join a new School of Medicine pilot program that would allow her to earn her medical degree in three years.

She and four other students graduated in 2020 as part of the inaugural cohort of the school’s competency-based graduation pilot program. The program’s students undergo a rigorous assessment of their competency and, in turn, graduate in three years instead of the traditional four, and are guaranteed acceptance into a residency program at VCU Health.

Fewer than 15% of medical schools in the country offer competency-based graduation programs, according to Sally Santen, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the VCU School of Medicine’s program. She said the program is a good fit for highly motivated students committed to completing residency training at VCU.

“Being able to accelerate the clinical portion of my training seemed almost too good to be true,” said Pearce, who is now in the first year of her OB-GYN residency on the MCV Campus. “I knew what I wanted to do and had already worked with the faculty and residents here and had wonderful experiences.”

Janina Pearce.
Janina Pearce joined the School of Medicine’s first cohort of its competency-based graduation pilot program, earning her medical degree in three years instead of the traditional four. She is now in her first year of OB-GYN residency at VCU Health. (Courtesy of VCU School of Medicine)

Reducing medical student debt — three-quarters of Pearce’s classmates graduated in 2020 with an average debt of $212,271 — along with attracting top graduates into VCU Health’s residency programs and addressing Virginia physician workforce shortages, particularly in primary care, are other advantages of the program.

“When you train in Virginia, you’re likely to stay in Virginia for your career,” Santen said. “Primary care is always in need of more physicians. We’re excited to bring high-level, highly qualified students to the field earlier and keep them here.”

Participating specialties in the pilot program include internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry; however, additional specialties may be considered based on student and residency program interest.

Students accelerate their clinical training by replacing third-year electives with acting internships and receive increased mentorship from preceptors and program directors in their chosen specialty as well as more formal assessments throughout the year.

The opportunity to reduce the years spent in clinical training is welcomed by Pearce and other M.D.-Ph.D. students whose graduate training can add another three to five years to the traditional four-year program.

Pearce credits VCU Health’s work in tackling health disparities with attracting her to the residency program and said her medical school training equipped her well for residency’s demands. “I don’t feel like I was at any disadvantage compared to my co-residents.”

Sarah Hobgood, M.D., co-director of the competency-based graduation program, said she received similar feedback from residency program directors. “They are very happy with the first cohort and say they are on par with — if not exceeding — their peers who come from a traditional track.”

Program organizers will track the results over time, Hobgood said, looking at factors including burnout rates among competency-based graduation students compared to the traditional resident population, how well they manage their time and how they are treated by their peers.

“Like our peers across the country, we are continuously looking for innovative ways to reduce student debt and address the national physician shortage,” said Peter F. Buckley, M.D, dean of the School of Medicine. “The competency-based graduation pilot program is a novel way to meet those needs for our students who already know what type of physician they want to become. Its success to date speaks to the program’s phenomenal leadership and the dedication among our faculty and students to make it happen.”

Shahida Mizan.
Mizan, who graduates in May, matched into a Psychiatry Residency at VCU Health on Friday and will be the program's first competency-based graduation student at VCU School of Medicine to pursue this residency.

‘I’ve never had this level of support’

Shahida Mizan is one of six students in the program’s second cohort. In March, she became the first competency-based graduation student to match into VCU Health’s psychiatry program and also worked closely with psychiatry attending physicians and residents.

“Everyone has been Team Shahida all the way,” Mizan said. “To know my career and my future matters and they’ll do what they can to get me to this point — I’ve never had this level of support before. It helps me have more confidence in myself.”

During her acting internship in psychiatry, Mizan said residents made a point to give her additional responsibilities knowing that she had already committed to the program. “They treated me like a colleague,” she said, “in terms of feedback, delegation and letting me be as independent as possible — hopefully leading to a seamless transition when I start residency in July.”

Mizan, who also is part of the school’s International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program, plans to devote her career to bringing mental health services to underserved communities. In I2CRP, she participates in programs that foster the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to provide high-quality, compassionate care to underserved populations in urban, rural or international settings.

“My family immigrated from a third-world country and I know what it’s like to not have access to health care,” said Mizan, whose volunteer work in a free clinic during college and during a gap year exposed her to health inequities closer to home. “I want to make a difference with underserved populations. I knew mental health was the way I wanted to effect change in the world.”

Her religious faith does not permit her to take out loans with interest, and Mizan is grateful for one less year of medical school to reduce the financial burden on her parents who have worked “day and night” to pay for her education. “Being able to forego a year of tuition makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.”

Mizan also hopes to make mental health treatment less taboo in the Southeast Asian community and eliminate some of the barriers she, friends and family have experienced. She is grateful the competency-based graduation program will give her the chance to pursue her goals one year earlier.

“The program has been such a blessing,” she said. “I just hope I do right by it when July comes.”

This story was originally published by the School of Medicine under the headline Medical students graduate in three years through new program.