I Tried It: Penn Medicine’s Med School Boot Camp

We got an inside look at an innovative summer camp experience for brainiac high school kids in Philly

Students at Penn Medicine's Laparoscopic Olympics

Last week, when I learned I would be checking out a summer camp at Penn Medicine, I have to admit I was slightly disturbed at the thought of 55 high schoolers actually choosing to spend their summer vacation at a camp modeled after med school. My idea of a camp, at least at their age, involves bonfires and archery and dips in the lake, not physiology books and cadavers and lectures with physicians. What kind of person willingly swaps one of his last summers of little to no responsibility for a four-week long boot camp devoted to all things medicine? And at age 16, at that? Even I’m not that much of a gunner. I should know: I just finished my first year of med school, and I wouldn’t elect to redo it if you paid me.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong—so wrong. This camp, at Penn Medicine’s Perelman School, in partnership with Julian Krinsky Camps and Programs, is med school on steroids—in a really, really good way. It’s the kind of med school that real medical students wish their med-school experience could be, one packed with as many fun and interactive activities as staffers could think of. (Seriously, they have weekly check-ins with students to make sure the “fun factor” is turned high enough.) Instead of spending the majority of their time slaving away over textbooks and sitting through long lectures with PhDs, Penn’s med school boot camp teaches students to draw blood, certifies them in CPR, lets them watch live-surgeries, and organizes lectures on topics ranging from addiction to global mental health, without the pressure of a big test at the end. These kids are even getting to practice techniques, like suturing, that I—and the camp’s six TAs who are also going into their second year—haven’t had a chance to try out yet. Jealous.

Gregg Lipschik, an MD and the director of the program, says the goal of med school boot camp is simple: to encourage rising high school juniors and seniors from around the globe (11 of the 55 students are international) to start a career in medicine. But judging from the conversations I had with a dozen of the students, this camp isn’t about deciding whether or not they want to be doctors—they already know they want to be doctors—it’s about getting more experience in the field. (And, it’s worth adding, helping them get into a competitive med school down the road.) For a few of the students, this was actually their second round of the medical boot camp, having attended similar, albeit shorter, programs at other schools last summer.

As a future doc myself, I can totally relate to being drawn towards medicine from a young age. At six years old, I often paraded around telling adults that I was going to be a neurologist when I grew up. As freakish as that may seem, these high-schoolers are lightyears ahead of where I was at their age. When interviewing two rising seniors, Opemipo and Ytrendia, from California and Florida, respectively, I couldn’t help but be impressed when they thoughtfully answered the “why do you want to be a doctor” question—believe me, it’s harder to articulate then it sounds—and went on to tell me about their interests in public health initiatives in developing countries, forensic pathology and medical research. It’s clear: These guys and gals have done their homework. At the very least, this program is doing a really good job at priming teens for the med school application process.

Here’s how it works: Each week of the program is centered around core medical specialties; the third week’s theme, which I got a taste of, is “Surgery and Psych.” And since there’s no better way to get 16-to-18-year-olds pumped about surgery than some good ol’ competition, Penn does something really fun: the Laparoscopic Olympics.

The event was held in Penn’s simulation lab, a space where residents practice their surgical techniques for hours using what look like fancy toys, before testing their skills on patients. The Olympics were broken down into three rounds, with the fastest times from each round moving onto the finals. Each round centered on the peg transfer, a challenge where you have to lift six rubber blocks individually with a grasper (yes, this is the real term) controlled by one hand and transfer the object mid-air to your other hand’s grasper, finally placing the block on a peg on the opposite side of the board. Repeat process.

What makes this task and all laparoscopic (or minimally invasive) surgery techniques particularly tricky is the inability to look directly at the pegboard. Instead, you must rely on a live camera image of the whole set up that has been projected onto a screen in front of you. To be good at this, I quickly learned, you have to learn to use the graspers like your second hands, which isn’t easy, considering they resemble primitive metal tools.

In the first round, students simply had to complete the peg transfer. The top 10 fastest times moved on. Things got slightly terrifying in the second round when, to up the ante, students that were knocked out in the first round were allowed to heckle the other students. And heckle, they did, screaming: “No pressure!” and “Don’t drop it!” really, really loudly. To their credit, the competitors seemed unfazed, and many even performed better as the competition wore on.

At this point, I decided it was time to try out the peg transfer for myself. I’m pretty competitive by nature and I’m considering surgery, so I figured this was right up my alley. In a nutshell, it didn’t go well. Because of the time pressure, I was shaky, stressed and sweating from start to finish. Miraculously, I ended up with a time of two minutes and 22 seconds—respectable, I thought, until I realized my time didn’t even crack the top 10 scores. Or 15. And that was without being yelled at the whole time. For reference, the average time for highly trained residents is 48 seconds, and the top scores for the high-schoolers was around 73 seconds. Not bad for newbies, eh?

The third round of the competition included heckling plus an added twist: The remaining competitors were spun around 10 times before being allowed to start the transfer. And the students all handled it like pros. I spoke with the winner of the laparoscopic olympics, Katerina from Boston, who managed to crush the competition in all rounds. She casually told me that this was her first time in the simulation lab. Looks like we have a future surgeon, along with other excellent future physicians, on our hands.

And hey, perhaps I’ll seem some of them on the floors someday.