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The Top Three Qualities Every Physician Should Have, How to Choose a Medical School, and More: An Interview with Dr. Kelly Sun

by Brooke Allnutt (‘23) 

I had the honor of shadowing Dr. Kelly Sun, an internal medicine specialist who works at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Kentucky. Throughout my time shadowing her, she shared many insightful things, including what she wished she knew before becoming a doctor, how she recommends choosing which medical schools to apply to, and how she uses the skills she learned in osteopathic medical school every day.  I found her tips so helpful I wanted to share them with all of you! Below are some of the amazing responses she gave to my questions:

Q. Have you always wanted to be a doctor?

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a doctor. I actually wanted to be a nurse for a good portion of my childhood. I didn’t start thinking about being a doctor until mid way through high school. My mother was a nurse, and I think a good portion of that desire to be a nurse was trying to emulate my role model. I put a twist on it when I started thinking for myself and wanting to play more of a role in management, rather than just carrying out orders. I even went through a stage in college where I thought about field biology because of my love of the environment, but that didn’t pan out the way I thought it would, and after shadowing in the field, I quickly realized it wasn’t for me. I did go on two medical mission trips where I got to work closely with several physicians and was able to closely examine what they did. I highly encourage exploring any idea you have for a vocation — shadow, interview, volunteer, research.

Q. What things do you wish you knew before pursuing this profession?

I think the biggest thing I wish I would have known about this path prior to choosing it was the amount of myself that I would lose in the pursuit of my doctorate. Many of the women I shadowed were happy with their job, highly satisfied with their home life, and very encouraging of me driving forward into medicine. I wish I would have had a more critical eye and discernment. Most of the women I shadowed were either done raising their children when they  set out on their career, or had another physician spouse that worked full time and they themselves only did part time work. The men I worked with had stay-at-home wives that did the house work and raised the kids. They were in a wonderful stage of their life: the times when you’re an attending physician. It’s the training that is most difficult. Years of hard, full-time studying as a medical student gives way to years of mentally and physically exhausting labor as a resident. For three years I saw more of my resident co-workers than I saw my own husband. I missed weddings of my best friends and family, funerals, and family vacations. I love what I do, I love being intimately entwined with my patients and getting the privilege to care for them, I loved getting to have a bond with my fellow residents that surpasses everything else, but I had to give up a lot of my passions outside medicine for at least seven years (more if you choose to specialize).

Q. How did you choose which medical school to attend? Do you have any advice on choosing?

My mother is a nurse, but also a part time massage therapist. Growing up, I got to see (and experience) the wonderful benefits of hands-on medicine, and that was my primary drive in applying to osteopathic institutions. Osteopathic manipulative treatment is an amazing tool to have at your disposal to help diagnose and treat your patients. It’s amazing to be able to feel the slightest movement of the tissue as it glides under your fingers and points you to where the true problem lies. Even more so is feeling that tissue after you have aided it in returning to its proper place and hearing the patient voice improvement. However, I learned that osteopathy is so much more than putting your hands on a patient. Oh, it is so much more! It is treating a patient as a person — treating their mind, body, and spirit that truly addresses their health and well-being. Those are part of the osteopathic tenants that are the backbone of every osteopathic institution.

To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease.
– A.T. Still MD, DO Philosophy of Osteopathy

Of course, like every good college student, I still applied to other medical schools in my state to give myself the best chance of being accepted. Looking at medical schools, I would highly encourage one to look at the students who attend and why they do. There were a few schools that I didn’t bother applying to because they were focused on research (which I wasn’t interested in) or specifically only took students with unbelievable MCAT scores, both of which would likely have meant my fellow classmates wouldn’t be the kind who watch out for you and help you when you don’t understand something. I wanted a collegial environment and more of a “family” feel. Aside from that, I would ask questions about 3rd and 4th year rotations, as osteopathic schools often do not provide 4th year rotations for you; you have to find them on your own — which isn’t necessarily a problem, but you should walk into that with your eyes wide open. It’s also important to understand their residency placement rate, as that’s your end goal, and especially look at their placement rate on the first attempt. You don’t want to be in limbo as a 4th year student who doesn’t match into residency.

Q. What sets osteopathic training apart from allopathic training?

What does osteopathic medicine offer that allopathic doesn’t? The biggest thing these days is OMT (osteopathic manipulative treatment) that I discussed prior. Most DO schools will have approximately another 200 hours of hands-on medicine to teach how to diagnose and treat patients. Yes, the majority is musculoskeletal, but there are also ways to treat things like leg edema, nausea, constipation, and many others. There actually is a fellowship for DOs in manipulation specifically as well. I had classmates that chose not to utilize their OMT skills after training, which frequently happens if they choose to specialize. There are courses that can be taken outside of medical school that MDs are welcome to attend to help teach these skills, but you are hard pressed to try to teach two years worth of courses in a three-day conference — frequently they are meant for DOs who want more in-depth learning on a particular subject. I also mentioned the tenets of osteopathic medicine previously. 

  1. The body is a unit; the person is a unit of body, mind, and spirit.
  2. The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.
  3. Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
  4. Rational treatment is based upon an understanding of the basic principles of body unity, self-regulation, and the interrelationship of structure and function.

These are going to set apart osteopathic institutions from allopathic, but I will say that I have plenty of MD counterparts that do just this. The ideas of treating a patient as a whole and addressing all aspects of health (spiritual and mental) in allopathic medicine have come quite a long way since the founding of osteopathic medicine over 100 years ago, and frequently I would say that they are very similar at this point.

Q. Are you still using the things you learned from osteopathic school?

Oh I absolutely use my skills from my training. I do manipulation several times a week, if not several times a day. It’s wonderful to be able to offer something more than just medications to my patients. I very much practice medicine as someone who wants to “do life” with patients. I can’t do life with someone if I only spend 10 minutes with them and expect them to bare their physical issues, let alone their emotional and spiritual hardships, with me. 

Q. What do you think are the three most important qualities one should have if they want to become a physician?

Gosh, only choosing three qualities is hard.  For someone to be a physician, there needs to be a strong thirst for learning. Literally your entire professional career will consist of continuing education and learning that what you thought was correct, actually flips about 5 years later. You need to be strong mentally and emotionally. This journey will test you and push you past the breaking point frequently. As much as society tells you you can do anything, not everyone is cut out to be a physician, and that is usually a big stumbling block. Without a strong support system (medically and socially), it will be a very bumpy ride. Most people would also put “helping people ” in here, but that is so generic and can be accomplished by any health care role. Physicians need to be a servant leader. You are carrying the weight and responsibility of caring for another human’s life. Be humble in that. You have been invited into someone’s intimate, messy life. What a privilege! Serve them well, and they will trust and follow you. This also sends a message to your staff, whom you also want to lead and encourage. A great leader doesn’t and shouldn’t rule with an iron fist. Model the behavior you want to see in others; encourage and elevate them.

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