In this post, we discuss what the dropout rate for medical school is and how it varies by race, gender and country.
- Quick Answer
- Overall Dropout Rate
- Dropout Rate By Country
- Dropout Rates By Gender
- Dropout Rates by Race
- Dropout Rates by Social Class
- Does the Curriculum Impact Dropout Rates?
- Burnout and Suicide Rate
- Why Do People Drop Out and Fail Medical School?
- Failing Medical School
- Famous Medical School Dropouts
The overall dropout rate is about 10%. However, reliable statistics are hard to find. Some studies found that dropout rates can be as low as 0.3% while others as high as 41.5%. It can depend on country, course type, gender, race and much more.
Across the world, there are a large number of medical students who start their degrees but never finish them.
This can be for many reasons including failure to achieve the correct grades, family issues or extreme unprofessionalism leading to expulsion.
In this post, we will discuss what the dropout rate for medical school is depending on factors like nationality, gender, race and course type, as well as discuss why medical students drop out in the first place.
Dropout Rate vs. Graduation Rate
It is important to distinguish the difference between dropout rate and graduation rate.
The dropout rate is the percentage of students failing to complete the course.
Graduation rate, on the other hand, is the percentage of a school’s first-time undergraduates who complete their course within 150% of the normal completion time.
In this article, we will mainly be focusing on the dropout rate.
Overall Dropout Rate
The overall dropout rate across the world is difficult to determine.
Some countries do not have a good supply of public information.
However, from what we can gather, the dropout rate is anywhere between 4 and 12%.
The overall dropout rate in this 2013 paper was 5.9% (this is the average dropout rate at University College Cork, Ireland over 10 years).
This number fell to 5.2% if transfer students were excluded and rose to 6.8% if only the 2002-07 cohorts were included.
Furthermore, the individual cohort dropout rate varied from being as low as 4.38% to as high as 9.15% (see these results in the graph below).
Dropout Rate (2002–2007)
The fact that the dropout rates vary so much shows the trickiness with statistics.
Just because a scientific study has given a statistic doesn’t mean it is accurate.
This is important to remember when looking at the statistics for the rest of this article.
Dropout Rates Per Year
If we break the dropout rates down into the year they were in when dropping out, we find that over 60% of dropout students were in the first year. Year 3 had the second-highest dropout rate (16%) while the final year had the lowest rate (5%).
See the graph below for a visual representation.
Dropouts Per Year of Study
The authors theorise that the reason for these high dropout rates early on in the course is because:
- 18-year-olds may lack the maturity to make informed career choices
- Difficulty adapting to self-directed learning
- Living away from home (struggles with loneliness and homesickness)
- Volume of work
- Wrong career choice
Dropout Rate By Country
In the US, overall dropout rates are about 34.3%.
Why so high?
Well, these rates include everyone that enters medicine, whether they are a full-time or part-time student.
If you look at full-time students only, it was 16.4%.
US Dropout Rates – Full-Time Students
Even more interesting, those who started the course aged 20 or younger were most likely to complete their course.
Whether this can be extrapolated to other countries remains to be seen.
One 2012 study at Nottingham University found a dropout rate of 6%.
A 1996 study looking at dropout rate from 1983 to 1992 at Leeds University saw that over the 10 years, 14% of medical students dropped out.
53% of those were asked to withdraw from the course for academic reasons while the rest left voluntarily.
Rest of the World
There is an interesting variation in global medical school dropout rates, with a global average of 11.1%, compared to a dropout rate range of 42–63% in South America and developing countries.
Irish and EU students demonstrated a low risk of dropout.
Non-EU students (Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates) were at increased risk of dropout.
The data below shows dropout rates for each Nationality for 5 cohorts between 2002 – 2006 at the University College Cork in Ireland.
Nationality (Absolute vs Percentage)
You can see that there is a comparison between the absolute and percentage numbers.
This is to show how some nationalities have an increased number of dropouts (e.g. Irish and EU students), but when taken in the context of how many students of that nationality there are, it is a very small percentage (because there are a large number of Irish and EU students, the total dropout number will be high, but their percentage dropout will be low).
You can see that those from Kuwait and UAE had the highest percentage dropout rate even though their absolute dropout rate was low.
Dropout Rates By Gender
Males seem to be slightly more likely to drop out than females.
In reality, there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference.
Females do seem to perform better than males in medical school exams.
This 2005 study showed that white females were the best exam takers at London Medical Schools.
Another thing to note is that since the 1980s, the number of females who are entering medical school has increased substantially.
It used to be that males were the doctors and females the nurses.
However, as time has moved on and global attitudes towards gender equality have changed, more and more females are becoming doctors. This is great considering how they are known to be more empathic and caring, incredibly important values that all doctors should have!
Dropout Rates By Race
The below pie chart shows the overall percentage of dropout rate for US medical schools based on different ethnic backgrounds.
Dropout Rate by Race
As can be seen in the above chart, those of black origin were most likely to drop out, with a dropout rate of 52%.
On the other side, those of Asian origin were leased likely to drop out, with a rate of only 23%.
Studies also show that ethnic minority medical students have poorer academic performance when compared to white students (2003 study). This was a study looking at OSCE performance (a practical exam taken at UK medical schools) at Guy’s and St Thomas’s medical school (now part of King’s College London).
The authors of the study don’t believe that this was down to discrimination, but rather a reflection of communication skills.
Dropout Rates by Social Class
This 2004 study shows how dropout rates vary depending on what social class a student was in.
Those from Social Class I (the most well-off) have an average dropout rate of 3.4% (lowering to 3.1% if their parents were doctors).
In contrast, the dropout rate is 4.3% for those from either Social Class IIIM (skilled manual), IV (semi-skilled) or V (unskilled).
Dropout Rate by Social Class
Note that this information is taken from UK medical students who dropped out between 1980-92 (2004 study).
Does the Curriculum Impact Dropout Rates?
This 2018 paper discusses how there is a difference between traditional and integrated curriculum on dropout rates.
They did this by implementing a change in curriculum at Rosario Medical School, Columbia.
They changed from a traditional curriculum to an integrated curriculum.
Traditional curriculum = 2 years lectures and 3 years clinical with most of the pre-clinical content taught via lectures and labs.
Integrated curriculum = Clinical vs non-clinical studies are not well defined (but generally, clinical exposure increases as time goes on). There is a mixture of PBLs and lectures with early clinical exposure.
Dropout Rate Under the Traditional Curriculum
At Rosario Medical School (in Columbia), a study reported that 47% of students dropped out of the traditional program.
They defined dropping out as leaving the program for more than one year of studies, which is much more general and so may explain why the number is so high.
74% of the students who left in their first 2 years of studies.
The authors also found that academic failure was the main reason for leaving the program.
Dropout Rate in the Integrated Curriculum
After a change of curriculum, the dropout rate had declined dramatically.
Students’ dropout percentages ranged from 0.8 to 8.3%.
The findings from these studies show that there was an overwhelming decrease in dropout percentages after changing from one design to the other.
While in the traditional curriculum sample an average of 41.5% of the admitted students dropped out of medical school before graduation, in the integrated curriculum sample the average was only 3.3%.
This is all on top of the fact that when a medical school decides to change its curriculum, there tends to be a transient and small increase in dropout in the first year.
Explaining the Results
Some factors that the authors thought could lead to this decreased dropout rate include:
- Immersing students from day one in the roles of doctors
- Reducing biomedical sciences overload
- Introducing active learning methodologies
- Changing the assessment system
- Creating mentorship and peer tutoring programs
They discuss how the decreasing rate was not by default the direct result of the curriculum structural changes.
Rather, by implementing a new curriculum, learners were at the centre of the learning process.
Meaning the role of the teacher was to guide the student to achieve their best.
They believe this shift of educational assumptions explains the reduction of the dropout percentage.
Burnout and Suicide Rate
This 2008 study surveyed US Medical Students in which 50% of students reported burnout within the last year with 11% reporting suicidal thoughts.
If this data is then extrapolated, we can approximate that among students, there is a suicidal ideation rate of 5.8%.
How You Can Deal With Burnout
Here are some tips that might help you deal with burnout.
Note: If you are having suicidal thoughts please contact the relevant helpline in your country. They want to help.
- Rebalance how you spend your time – If you spend a lot of time in the hospital on placements, then just stop. There is no need to go into hospital and work a full-time job. o the necessary things and then leave.
- Wind down – When I feel stressed, I ensure to take a break from studying. I play some video games to watch some YouTube videos. Know that by winding down, you are still doing work. You are letting yourself recharge. You can’t do work if you’re empty on charge and remember that recharging is part of the working process.
- Prioritise passing your exams – Don’t spend too much time on useless things you know only contributes a small amount to your course. Right now, just focus on your next exam and do the minimum work needed to pass that. Once you are finished with the exam, take at least 2-3 days off where you don’t do any work.
Why Do People Drop Out and Fail Medical School?
Here are some general reasons for why students may dropout:
- English fluency problem – Although all students met the requisite English language requirements, it may result in not being able to make friends easily and poor communication skills for practical exams.
- Imposter syndrome – People feel they don’t belong in medical school. That they just aren’t good enough.
- The volume of material – Too much content which can cause significant emotional stress.
- Poor study habits – They may have easily gotten through school, however, they find University too big of a step up and don’t have the right habits to be able to deal with it.
The authors of one study discuss how reasons for dropout may vary according to which year they are in.
Early dropout may be caused by:
- 18-year-olds may lack the maturity to make informed career choices
- Difficulty adapting to the self-directed learning environment
- Living away from home (struggle with loneliness and homesickness)
- Unprepared for the volume of work
- Wrong career choice
- Going from being high-achievers at school to mediocre performance at University
Late dropout may be caused by:
- Persistent academic failure
- Psychological/physical ill-health (in particular depression)
- A failure to identify, support and offer alternative career strategies to students at an earlier stage in the course.
The majority of medical students will have been high-achievers at school. When they don’t do as well they may be reluctant to seek or accept help.
Failing Medical School
Feeling Like a Failure in Medical School
If you failing medical school then don’t worry, there is still hope.
If you feel depressed, then please call the necessary helplines. They want to help you.
You might feel like you have yet to do anything remarkable or worthy of comment, especially if you are surrounded by doctors and medical students.
Another thing students have to deal with is Imposter syndrome. You deserve to be here. The school wouldn’t have let you in if you weren’t capable.
Remember, failing one exam out of three years so far is far from ‘failing’ med school. It’s a difficult course and many if not most of the other medics I know have failed an exam at some point or another. The majority passed on the re-sits and have gone on to live normal lives, relatively unencumbered by the residual shame of having failed an exam.
What to Do If You Are Failing Medical School
For those who are feeling sad and scared, here are a few things you can do to help the situation:
- Keep your head up and keep on going – There is light at the end of the tunnel. If you keep at it then you might find yourself surprised by how well you do.
- Reduce the nerves – The test-taking environment can be incredibly stressful. Try to do some breathing exercises or go for a morning run before the exam. They have both been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Seeing a school counsellor – At every University there is always help available. If you don’t want to go to University, go to your doctor. They can also help guide you, especially if you are feeling very nervous and stressful.
- Took a class on how to learn – Poor academic performance is a big factor in why medical students dropout. Therefore be proactive and learn how to revise and study at medical school.
Lacking Motivation to Do Medicine
If the issue is that you lack the motivation to do medical school, then you need to consider if this is the right career path for you.
Check out the points below on if you should I leave medical school (link).
If the problem is that you want to do medicine, but the motivation for exams is not there, then you should try and talk with your friends. Tell them how you feel.
Here are a few things that might help get you motivated to study for your exams again:
- Study in a group – Studying with friends helps you put in the time needed to study.
- Make a plan – Making a plan helps keep you accountable.
- Tell the University – Most Universities have a support system. They want to see you succeed, so if you tell them what you are going through they might be able to point you int he right direction.
Should I Leave Medical School?
- Dropping out of first-year – If it’s your first year then you can take solace in the fact that you can get out early. There is no compulsion to do what you want. In five years, your parents, friends and colleagues will not care that you dropped out in your first year. And you defiantly won’t care because you will be much happier with what you are doing.
- Taking a year out of medical school – This is an option that people don’t often talk about. You could take a year out, although there is a stigma about it.
- Finish medical school – One option is that you can finish the degree first and then not become a doctor. This can open up options that would otherwise not exist. Some jobs would love it if you have a medical degree.
Medical School Dropout Jobs
If you are considering dropping out, then you will be most likely looking at jobs.
I’ve gathered a list of some jobs you can do if you are dropping out.
Dropping out in medical school with no degree:
- Get another degree (e.g. engineering, finance, business)
- Start an online business (start a blog!)
- Buy and sell on Amazon
- Work for a University
If you have a medical degree:
- Medical education
- Start a medicine-related business
- Expert health writer
- Prison health
Famous Medical School Dropouts
Here is a list of some famous medical school dropouts.
Hopefully, this can convince the people who think dropping out of University is bad that you can still do well as long as you continue to work hard in whatever you do.
The percentages involved in dropout rates are tricky to monitor, and so a lot of it has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
However, we can say that ethnic minorities and those of lower social class are at higher risk, which should be looked at further and be addressed as time goes on.
The dropout rate is certainly important and needs to be monitored as it can cause significant harm to students and family members if not dealt with.
At the end of the day, behind every dropout statistic is a vulnerable young adult who has left the medical programme.
They can still have a good career ahead of them and should be supported by Universities, governments and the people around them.
If they are supported well, dropouts can indeed still have a good life ahead of them.
- AAMC Data
- Cause Analysis of Students’ Dropout Rate in Higher Education Study Program (2014)
- Burnout and Suicidal Ideation Among U.S. Medical Students (2008)
- Dropout and Graduation Delay in Undergraduate Medical Students. Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá, Colombia (2016)
- Effect of ethnicity and gender on performance in undergraduate medical examinations (2005)
- Effect of ethnicity on performance in a final objective structured clinical examination: qualitative and quantitative study (2003)
- Factors Affecting the Probability of First Year Medical Student Dropout in the UK: A Logistic Analysis for the Intake Cohorts of 1980-92 (2004)
- Factors associated with dropout in medical education: a literature review (2011)
- Five medical schools are created in England in bid to increase home grown doctors (2018)
- Impact of Problem-Based, Active Learning on Graduation Rates for 10 Generations of Dutch Medical Students (2009)
- Medical student attrition: a 10‐year survey in one medical school (1996)
- Medical School Attrition-Beyond the Statistics A Ten Year Retrospective Study (2013)
- Medical school dropouts: regrettable or required? (2018)
- NSC Research Center – Completing College Report (2019)
- The influence of different curriculum designs on students’ dropout rate: a case study (2018)
- When did they leave, and why? A retrospective case study of attrition on the Nottingham undergraduate medical course (2012)