Exchange program brings Peking University medical students to UMKC

Two medical students, a man and a woman, are asked why they wanted to study medicine.  

“Because doctors can save lives and help heal wounds,” he replies. For her, being a doctor “means I will be able to take care of my family, both financially and physically.” They add that social status and family pride will be nice side benefits, too.  

Zhang Qiming (back left) and Gao Yufei (right front) were met by student ambassadors from the UMKC School of Medicine in a welcoming reception at Diastole.

Their answers may be typical. But the students, Zhang Qiming and Gao Yufei, are not — at least not in the halls of the UMKC School of Medicine. They recently wrapped up a month-long exchange visit from the Peking University School of Medicine, seeing how one American school educates the next generation of U.S. physicians. 

Some differences between their school and UMKC are obvious. One is the Hospital Hill campus, “which is like a park,” Zhang said, with green space between the med school and the Health Sciences Building, in contrast with the walled area of their university and hospital. Another is UMKC students’ individual offices in their docent unit. Compare that to much tighter, shared study spaces at Peking University. 

And then there is UMKC students’ freedom — and much greater expense — to live and eat where they want to.  

“At our school, the majority of students live in the dormitories, all eight years,” Zhang said. 

“And we take all our meals in the canteen on weekdays,” Gao added. 

To do otherwise would simply cost too much, Zhang said, especially in Beijing, where already high rent and other living expenses have risen rapidly in the past 10 years.  

But there also are similarities between UMKC and Peking University, including how difficult it is to get into medical school.  

Zhang and Gao, both 23 years old, had to be top students to study medicine at Peking University, regarded as “the Harvard of China.” Zhang was in the top 50 of 200,000 high school seniors who took a university placement exam in his province of Fujian, on China’s southeast coast. Gao faced a similar challenge in her province of Yunnan, in southwest China. 

Peking University’s medical program is eight years, like most traditional U.S. medical schools that follow four years of undergraduate work to earn a bachelor’s degree. And like UMKC’s six-year B.A./M.D. program, their medical school takes students straight from high school. The last two years are known as a residency, and emphasize patient care. After graduation, Chinese medical students still must get further training, similar to U.S. residency programs. 

Zhang and Gao have completed their fifth year. “We have taken many classes to prepare us, including basic sciences and medical sciences,” said Gao. “We have not spent much time yet seeing patients, as students here have, but we will in our final three years.” 

In China, Gao and Zhang also have been exposed to various branches of medicine, and each has settled on a specialty — ophthalmology for Gao and urology for Zhang. During their UMKC visit, they have been able to see those specialties taught and practiced at the School of Medicine, Truman Medical Center-Hospital Hill and the Eye Foundation of Kansas City. 

“My first years at university were a bit overwhelming; there was so much information to learn,” Gao said. “But when I found ophthalmology, I knew what I wanted to do. I believe interest is the best teacher, and I am very interested in learning everything about how our eyes work. Because I have myopia and must wear glasses, I understand how terrible it is to have bad vision.” 

Zhang is similarly excited about his chosen area. 

“This is a very strong area at our medical school—urology and urological cancer,” he said. “I also want to be a surgeon, and some of the best cancer surgeons are in urology.” 

Zhang and Gao are the first students to visit UMKC under a new cooperation agreement between the School of Medicine and Peking University. The universities hope for further exchanges of students and faculty, along with research collaboration. UMKC’s leadership in bioinformatics and other research was one reason the Chinese school was interested in adding UMKC to its U.S. partners. 

The agreement came at the right time for Zhang and Gao, because after their fifth year, students in their program are eligible to do an international rotation. 

Their stay, which ran through Dec. 10, began with a welcoming reception at the Diastole Scholars’ Center and a meeting of the board of the Edgar Snow Foundation. The foundation carries on the legacy of Snow, an American journalist who was the first Westerner to report extensively on China under Mao Zedong. Snow and School of Medicine founder E. Grey Dimond were friends, and Gao said one highlight of the trip was seeing Snow’s papers, which are housed at UMKC’s Nichols Library. 

Zhang and Gao said they enjoyed meeting faculty and students, and were eager to share what they had learned about the docent system and other aspects of the UMKC School of Medicine.  

“I like how each third-year student has one-to-one help from a fifth-year student,” Gao said, “and they continue as fourth-year and sixth-year students. There is so much support.”