For a medical school applicant with a criminal record, calling out a complex problem is an understatement.
The Association of American Medical Colleges screens the national criminal background of medical school applicants and recommends them for use by middle school admissions committees. Most do, but school policies and state laws vary.
A small minority of schools on the AAMC website do not use the criminal background check service facilitated by AAMC. Nine participating AMCAS medical schools are located in Texas and use state check, and the City University of New York School of Medicine does not require screening.
The majority of schools that use the AAMC criminal background check do not use anything else, but may do additional and fingerprint searches. At the City University of New York School of Medicine, for example, there is no requirement for a criminal background check. However, when students seek clinical training through an internship, usually during the third year, hospitals typically require a criminal background check and drug screening before allowing students to see patients. Those who decline the test are not allowed to participate and therefore will not be able to meet the graduation requirements. If they can’t graduate, they obviously won’t be able to get a license or residency.
Why do medical schools care? Because they are expected to keep patients safe and they want their students to eventually be able to obtain a license to practice medicine. They also want to avoid liability for any subsequent issues.
In relation to patient safety, any history of criminal convictions – for damaging another person, violence, driving under the influence or drunk driving, fraud of any kind, rape, drug-related offenses, embezzlement, very dangerous or reckless driving , perjury or murder – will certainly raise serious concerns. Either the event was not healthy for a person or it could be considered unsafe.
Although there are licensed physicians for such offenses, it is not uncommon for medical school applicants with a criminal record to be successful without long-term proven behavioral change and restitution.
What do middle school admissions committees do? They make best guesses as to whether the applicant will allow the event to occur again. If it happens again, what will be the wave of consequences? It’s easy to understand why a murder conviction is so troubling for most admissions committees.
The American Medical Association recommends that all states use criminal background checks for their medical boards, but some do not. In general, a variety of ineligible arrests can stop a license in health care, although most states state that no crime automatically disqualifies a person.
A state medical board may deny an application for a license to practice medicine, or restrict how it can be used. Misdemeanors, especially multiple misdemeanors, can fall into this category. In some states, several misdemeanors within a certain time period—such as three convictions for drunk driving within 10 years—equal to a felony.
The bottom line is that the Medical School Admissions Committee may not be able to predict with certainty that some convictions may or may not prevent licensure. They have to make their best guesses and perhaps think about what their state board has done recently.
As admissions committees consider patient safety and seek to assist their graduates in obtaining licensure, they will consider the severity and duration of the applicant’s criminal conviction. A DUI four years ago may be more concerning than a speeding ticket, but the applicant may still have a chance to accept it. Killing six months ago would be too risky.
If you have a criminal record and are applying to medical school, make sure you’ve seen exactly the police record, because that’s what the school will see. Explain the topic clearly and describe any mitigating factors, but don’t make excuses. Express sadness or shame if you feel this way, and describe what you’ve done since the accident to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Lying does not work. The committee will look into that and will not trust you to take care of patients. In medicine, truth should be the bottom line – with the assurance that you can count on team members to perform surgery on the correct leg, indicate the correct diagnosis or order the correct tests on a chart.
Lying about a drug problem when the drug is most readily available will never work for your doctor, patient, or colleagues. If perjury or fraud has occurred in the past, what prevents misrepresentations from happening again on the chart, in oral commands, or with the patient?
Honesty is a habit of excellence. It is a must in medical school applications. Flirting the truth or giving only half the truth appears in a description of an institutional act or a discussion of a criminal conviction. This usually results in the applicant being screened immediately before there is an invitation for an interview.
There are blog posts about convictions that have been written off. I remember a young woman who thought her conviction had been crossed out, but she didn’t. I’ve also read that in some cases, original convictions can still be found online, even if they have been crossed out.
Always be sure to consider any drug or alcohol issue, your convictions or not. Patients who trust their doctor do not deserve someone who has a weak brain and does not think clearly, even if the doctor thinks he is. Drugs and alcohol are temptations throughout life when you live under fairly constant stress. It’s easy to get such a problem under the rug, but being honest with yourself while you’re in college will help prepare you as a medical student to find other ways to deal with stress.
In some states, if a physician has gone through a rehabilitation program before being forced to see a medical board, he or she will likely obtain a permit and continue to practice. It usually doesn’t go well for those who don’t do it alone and then go down in front of the medical board.
I have seen doctors lose their licenses due to drug or alcohol abuse. Sadly they went through so much preparation in their training. Fortunately, many countries are making more efforts in using monitoring, rehabilitation, and supervision than in the past.
I once advised a young student who had a DUI and was struggling on how to prove his growth during the accident. I suggested him volunteer at an alcohol rehabilitation unit. He did so and found it to be one of his three most important activities. Through his direct disclosure and interpretation of the impact of his mother’s death and how it developed through experience – including volunteering – he was accepted into medical school and succeeded there.
Whatever your mistakes in life, you can grow through them and become a better person. Ignoring a serious fall in judgment will not eliminate it, but showing how you have grown up and dealt responsibly with past mistakes will help your application.
Most criminal convictions do not prevent you from becoming a doctor, but they do require you to come out knowingly and explain what happened and why without excuses. It is helpful to express sincere regret and awareness of how others have been or have been harmed. Show by doing, if possible, how you have grown and developed.
Apply to more medical schools, where you can’t predict the minds of admissions deans. Perhaps contact prospective schools in the spring to discuss a criminal case before including the schools on your application list. It is always wise to get sound and objective advice before applying.
If you don’t have to think about a criminal record issue before applying to medical school, count your yes and stay vigil. Mistakes can happen to anyone.