Dr. Lee Burnett founded Student Doctor Network or SDN to connect students. Little did he know how big it would get, and how negative the internet would turn. He’s hoping to change that.
I’ve been doing this podcast for six years now. I actually started this podcast back in 2012 after I realized that there wasn’t good enough positive information out there. Particularly, SDN had a ton of negative information. And I talked a lot about that site. In fact, I have actively discouraged students from using that site.
Previously, I reached out to them and met with the founder, as well as the people running it day in and day out. I initially didn’t get any positive reception from them. Until recently, Lee reached out to me and expressed his interest in collaborating with me in some way to figure out how we can move things forward.
I was very happy hearing from him considering how SDN is a very big site and students are finding it and using it. While I’m just a small piece in this premed puzzle and I can’t shepherd everybody away from SDN. But if we can work together and make SDN a better place for you, then I’m all for it.
[04:25] Lee’s Interest in Becoming a Physician
Lee recalls being told by his mom when he was in high school back in the 80s to pick a profession he wanted. And being a doctor was what appealed to him. His dad worked for the State of California while his mom worked for a nonprofit organization. And both ended up working together to help promote family medicine in California. So it was natural for him as he got to meet the doctors his parents were working with who were all residency program directors.
Following college, he went into an osteopathic medical school in California. After he graduated, he did a year of DO program, specifically unopposed residency program in internal medicine and surgery. Then he finished the next two years in family medicine at UC Irvine. By unopposed, it means there are no other residency programs that are competing for patients at whatever facility you’re at. So the whole clinic or facility is just for a specific residency program. Hence, he got to see everything, which something he recommends to students as he might not have had the same opportunity from other programs otherwise. Aside from such program, UC Irvine also had a local community hospital, which they got to do rotations at as well as in UC-Irvine in Orange, CA.
[09:08] Location as a Deciding Factor and an F in Genetics
Born and raised in California, Lee wanted to stay there. He went to UC Davis for undergrad, had a good Science GPA, but got some really bad advice. In fact, it was what led him down the road to eventually create Student Doctor Network.
At that time, he was struggling with Genetics and decided to drop out of the class so he got an F. The advice he got from other people was not to worry about an F as they’re going to drop it from the GPA calculation and could just retake it and get an A and everything is going to be fine. Of course, that was a terrible advice.
So his GPA and MCAT scores were pretty good but not good enough to get into a UC program. Consequently, he got advice to look to DO schools. He wasn’t aware of it and so he tried to research it. But understand this was before the internet days so there wasn’t much information out there. He went to the school and took a look at it and thought it was legit with a solid core program. He also saw that their graduates had very good residency slots. Hence, he went with such school, especially knowing he would stay in CA and had a good primary care program.
[12:15] Osteopathic Manipulative Technique (OMT) in Practice
Lee admits to not doing OMT in his practice. He thinks it’s great but it’s something you have to do constantly.
When he went into his own practice back in 2000, he just didn’t put the effort into continuing to maintain the skill. And it was something he actually regrets. He currently works full-time with the army. When he was working with pilots, they didn’t want to take any medication otherwise it grounds them so they really want osteopathic manipulation as they could feel good without taking any medicine. So a good DO who keeps on top of their OMT schools can really do absolute magic.
[13:45] Getting Into the Military and Watching the Saddam Trial
Back during his residency in Downey as an intern, he considered himself dirt poor and buried in student loans and car payment. He was having a hard time making ends meet. Then he got recruited and in return, he had to give a certain number of years back once graduating from residency. While in residency, you don’t have to serve any time at all. To him, this sounded like a pretty good deal. He got to serve the military while getting some financial help which he desperately needed. So he got money for the next three years of his residency. And when he graduated in 2000, he owed two years in the reserves for every one year he took a paycheck from the army, 6 years in total.
After 9/11, everything in the military just completely changed. The reserves had a large chunk of army’s medical capability so physicians were being deployed on a fairly routine basis. Instead of getting deployed in Iraq, they ended up sitting at Fort Lewis, WA. Following that, he went back to his practice in CA. He then decided to finish his six years until he got called up again in 2005 for a routine rotation and served at a combat hospital in Iraq for four months. Plus, he got to watch the Saddam trial and being the physician there in case something happened. Because of this, he considered staying in the army for longer. And ultimately, it was something he wanted and decided to do it full-time, being able to make a huge difference serving the country taking care of soldiers and their families versus treating patients back home. So in 2009, he went full-time with the Army Reserves in North Carolina and in 2011, an active component and ultimately volunteered in the Air Force infantry division for two years. Then he spent a year in Kansas and four years in Korea. Now, he’s in Fort Brooke, Louisiana serving at a combat support hospital.
[23:10] From a Need for Money to Finding His Calling in Life
What Lee appreciates as a physician is it’s a single healthcare system. Having to deal with different insurers, you can’t order some of the tests you had to order, it could be frustrating. Not to mention all the amount of paperwork and effort, it would just crush your soul. And he felt it got worse and worse every year he was in private practice.
But being in the military work with a single healthcare system, you can order what you need to order and get the medications you need to get. And Lee finds this to be very refreshing.
[24:24] The Impetus for Student Doctor Network
Back in 1993 as Lee started medical school, there were 17 osteopathic medical schools across the country. And they had no idea what issues these schools had. As he and his friend met people at conferences and other events, they decided to publish a newspaper, The Osteopathic Pulse in 1994. It had articles from each of the different osteopathic schools in the country and they distributed it for free to all the schools. Basically, it reached the first and second-year students since the third and fourth-year people were on rotation.
By 1996, they figured out how the internet worked and all those stuff. He learned how to do HTML programming and took all the articles from the newspaper and put them into the internet so the third and fourth-year people could see it online.
They also had a chatroom and a forum back in 1997-1998, where everytime you updated a page, it created a new page in and of itself. So there wasn’t any database. And everything just evolved from there.
By 1997 as he was graduating from medical school, they weren’t doing the newspaper anymore but he continued developing stuff on the internet. They sought to create quality content about other schools and interesting stuff. At that time, there were only 2-3 websites for medical students and dental students, whom he got together with online. They decided to create one thing for everybody, hence, they created the Student Doctor Network.
They weren’t that focused on the forum, but on everything else like how to get into medical school or dental school, articles, etc. So the forum was just an afterthought. But over time, in 2001-2002, the forum just got bigger and bigger (now with over 3,000 members), that people would now equate SDN to forums and not the other components of the site.
As Lee mentioned earlier, this was born out of a crappy advice he got from other friends and over time, that kind of drove what they were doing in making sure they had good, reliable information, along with peer support through the forums.
[30:30] The Evolution of SDN
Lee describes how the internet has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. In the early days, they would just have 40 up to 200 people in the forum. It was quite slow. But it has changed the dynamics of how people relate to each other on the internet. Back in the days, people weren’t as jaded as they are now. It was a very positive community. But it has changed a lot over the years.
As to when he noticed this change from being collaborative to more of the trolling and heated flame wars, Lee would describe it like a boiling frog syndrome, where you just kind of sit there and not notice it. The culture changed gradually. It wasn’t like an overnight thing. But he didn’t see it until around 2008-2009. And he wasn’t quite sure whether it was related to the economy, generation shift, etc.
Additionally, he noticed that more people came on the internet and things became even more anonymous. People had the anonymity of the keyboard and gotten into bad places where they wouldn’t have gone had they not had that same level of anonymity.
At that time, SDN had old rules where that if users don’t want to be moderated, they’d just leave them alone. And if something really gets out of hand and they’ll go in there. But usually, the forums would take care of themselves. And it worked pretty well. Then again back in 2008-2010, they began to see a shift where self-regulation wasn’t happening as much anymore. And for some reason, people were no longer using the “report the post” button as much as Lee would have wanted. So in a way, it was like people just expected that behavior and tolerated it. And Lee admits he’s sad to see where they are as a whole as a nation and across the internet globally that they are having all this negative discourse so frequently in public forums. Presently, at SDN, they had changed their moderation over the past few years, from being hands off to really keeping a close eye on what people are saying. They’ve begun being aggressive in getting in and removing people who were being negative, trolling, etc. So they had to change the way they moderated.
Lee saddened by all the negativity right now but if they really wanted to provide free information to students and have a place for them to support each other, then they knew they wanted to provide that protective environment.
[36:25] A Little Back Story of How MSHQ Began
I started the Medical School Headquarters in 2012 for the reason Lee started SDN because of poor premed advising but also because SDN back then was the negative place for information. So when I started it, my goal was if I could take one person who goes on SDN and reads something or asks a question and gets answers back and think they can never become a physician and discouraged, I want to put out information to show them that they can no matter what, although it’s not going to be that easy and it may take longer.
So what has now become my life’s work was a result of the downturn of the forums in SDN and all the negativity that was around. So I’m thankful for SDN as I wouldn’t have been here if not for that loose moderation. It’s funny how all this have come full circle.
Lee adds that other forums have popped up over the next few years and branched out because they felt SDN was negative. To some degree, things were negative back in 2010. By taking SDN on a balance, Lee would beg to disagree that by and large, the information was very positive and people were very supportive.
He goes on to say that Reddit even has an interesting way of having this bias forum based on up and down votes, which SDN doesn’t have to prevent any bias. But human nature is that you’re going to lock on to those one or two negative posts out of the 20 positive ones. But they’ve been working with individuals who would give truthful advice in a way that doesn’t crush a soul and they’ve been doing this for the past couple of years.
[41:30] A Soul Crushing Example
One of my favorite threads on SDN was from a student I did some mock interviews with. The student got kicked out of his undergrad 20 years ago and finally realized he wanted to be a physician. After he got his acceptance to an allopathic medical school, he went to SDN for some reason and presented his stats and asked what he would do. The response would be that he’d have slim to none chance. But one response he got who was supposedly a faculty member, advised him not to go through this career path. So this was like the core of what SDN used to be.
So I raised the question to Lee whether this kind of reply would now be moderated. He explains that if the statement was honest and reasonable, then it would stay up. But if someone was trying to be a jerk and trying to crush somebody’s soul, then this would not be tolerated. Hence, it’s a case by case basis.
[44:00] Osteopathic Bashing
As an osteopath himself, Lee thinks that the bashing going on right now against osteopaths is because of insecurity. And people can get really fired up, even going back to the early days of SDN, that he even had to post telling them that regardless of them picking MD or DO, it really doesn’t matter. Just do whatever is right for you. We don’t need to have these MD vs DO discussions. They don’t provide any value. Lee says he never had a problem as a DO since graduating in residency. So he couldn’t really figure out why people have this kind of discussion at all.
[47:05] The Future of SDN and How You Should Use the Forums
Lee reiterated that SDN was created to provide good quality information and to help students as they go through their journey from high school all the way to residency. It’s a nonprofit organization so they’re not getting any money from it. But they want to remain true to their mission of providing good quality content to help students make good decisions.
And so Lee reached out to me about a month ago in the hope of being able to work together, along with other organizations that provide good quality and free information to students.
Lee recommends to students trying to dip their toes into the SDN site, is that first, be open to what people are saying. But on the flip side, if somebody says something you don’t agree with, just ignore them and drive on.
Second, if you see something you think is inappropriate or condescending or just not a part of a community you don’t want to be a part of, then press that Report Post button. That way, the moderators can get in there and take care of it. They have about 60 moderators and there are millions of posts, so they can’t look over every single post everyday. So they’re relying on their community to give them a heads up when there’s something inappropriate.
[51:00] More SDN Projects to Check Out!
Lee says that although the forums are the biggest part of the site now, his passion is really in creating all these other free areas such as the StudySchedule, that gives you free and customized study plan. Another is the Scutwork, where people get to post reviews of the different residency programs. Review2.com is another project where they’ve taken reviews from Yelp, Google, and their own database. So if you take the MCAT, PCAT, or DAT, simply pick up which exam to take, which center, state, city, and it will show you a compiled report of all the different reviews from previous test-takers. This way, people can make a decision whether they want to take that test in that particular center or not.
Interview Feedback is another one of the key components of the SDN site where students provide feedback on their interviews and school experiences to help other students.
LizzyM Score Calculator is a tool where you enter your numbers and it will generate which schools are in the zone you select. Then you’re provided with a list of schools you can look at.
Medical Specialty Selector is another tool that provides helps students find a residency match based on their interests, abilities, and personality.
The SDN Experts tab will let you post any question and their experts will respond. There’s also the Application Cost Calculator that gives does the calculation of what you might be spending and how much you need to budget for your medical school interviews.
[56:00] About the LizzyM Score
I believe there’s a huge pushback against things like LizzyM because it’s taking the “holistic” view out of the admissions process from a premed’s perspective. And the premed is told that information just based on stats. And the schools that may be a great fit for the student aren’t getting to see that student’s application because LizzyM said the student didn’t have a chance there.
Lee thinks this is a valid point. However, he adds that as long as medical schools continue to use systems that automatically screen people based on GPA and MCAT score, then LizzyM score is going to continue to be pretty valid. This is based on years of evidence. But that being said, Lee insists people should do what they want to do. It’s just an option they provide if you don’t have a lot of money and you can’t spread yourself across every single school application. So here’s where you’re going to be best targeting. So this is what it’s best used for.
[58:25] Final Words of Wisdom
Lee welcomes everyone to use the site. As a nonprofit organization, they’re completely free. It’s entirely supported by the ads you see on the site. Whether they have the forums or not, Lee says they’re there to help students achieve their dreams. Don’t get wrapped around the axle based on one or two posts that you see on an anonymous forum. Take it as a whole.
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