Going through medical school to become a physician requires a huge level of commitment—not to mention years of life spent studying and tens of thousands of dollars on tuition. When that medical education is threatened with allegations of misconduct or academic shortfalls, it's nothing short of a crisis. Being dismissed from medical school can completely derail a person's career options and create untold financial loss in the process.
If you are facing possible dismissal from medical school—or if one of your children is in medical school and facing possible disciplinary action—you may be feeling a huge amount of fear and uncertainty about the future, and your mind may be filled with questions about what to expect and what to do next. To help alleviate these concerns, the Lento Law Firm has compiled the following answers to the most frequently asked questions from our clients regarding medical school dismissal. This information is provided to help give you a firmer footing as you or your child faces what lies ahead.
What types of offenses could get me dismissed from medical school?
Medical students may face disciplinary action (including dismissal) over a wide range of issues. Most medical schools will publish this information in some sort of Code of Conduct manual. If the medical school is affiliated with a university, the student will also be subject to the rules and regulations within the Student Code of Conduct for that university.
The specific list of dismissal-worthy offenses may vary from school to school, but they typically fall under the following categories.
The curriculum for most medical schools is excessively demanding. The course load and academic standards of these schools can be difficult even for the most dedicated students to keep up with. It should come as little surprise, then, that a large percentage of medical students face dismissal simply because they were unable to keep pace with the course material and/or could not maintain minimum grade levels. Academic performance is usually monitored by a committee of faculty and/or students (often called a Student Performance Committee, Student Promotions Committee, or some other variation of these terms). In most cases, a student who falls behind will be offered some sort of remedial program by the committee to help them get back on track before dismissal is recommended.
Academic Misconduct and/or Dishonesty
Medical schools hold academic integrity in the highest regard, not just for the purpose of turning out qualified physicians, but also for the sake of their own reputation. Allegations of academic misconduct are taken very seriously, and depending on the severity of the offense, frequently result in dismissal.
Common examples of academic misconduct/dishonesty include:
- Plagiarism. One of the most common academic offenses, plagiarism involves using someone else's work or ideas as your own. Examples may be as blatant as copy/pasting someone else's essay or an excerpt from a book, or as subtle as failing to cite your sources (thereby suggesting your thoughts are original). Plagiarism can also involve copying homework from an online study site like Chegg or turning in a paper purchased online with your name affixed to it. Even turning in a collaborative project but failing to name all the participants technically qualifies as plagiarism. This offense is perhaps the most dangerous for medical school students because it's so easy to do (many students plagiarize unintentionally) and because schools take plagiarism seriously because it's a form of intellectual property theft.
- Cheating. Often used as a catch-all term, cheating generally refers to any violation of school policy or a professor's instructions for the purpose of giving yourself an unfair academic advantage. Examples may include obtaining the answers to an exam in advance; copying another student's work; continuing to work on a test or assignment past the time limit; and using prohibited materials to obtain the answers to assignments.
- Falsifying Information. Any act of falsifying information or documents to misrepresent yourself or your status can result in dismissal from medical school. Examples may include altering a grade in your file, forging someone's signature on a form, etc.
- Bribery. Unlike the stereotypical idea of “paying off” someone in authority to keep quiet, bribery in an academic setting involves making some sort of trade for academic advantage. Examples might include attempting to trade favors with an instructor for a better grade, paying someone to do your work, or paying someone to break into your school records and change your grades.
- Research misconduct. The study of medicine involves a lot of research, and academic integrity is absolutely critical to delivering reliable results. Failing to follow established parameters when conducting research and experiments can taint the results. So can reporting results incompletely or inaccurately. If you do these things, even accidentally, you could be accused of research misconduct and be subject to dismissal.
- Unauthorized Assistance, Collaboration, or Sharing. Giving or receiving unauthorized help on exams, quizzes, projects, or research creates an unfair academic advantage. So does collaborating with other students or colleagues on a project without the instructor's knowledge or permission, as does sharing your results with others without authorization, or failing to protect your work from being copied. All of these are examples of academic dishonesty that can result in dismissal.
- Disruption/sabotage. Academic misconduct isn't just about trying to get an unfair advantage; it may also involve hindering the ability of others to get a fair education. If you disrupt the learning environment or sabotage someone else's work for your own gain, you could be cited and dismissed for academic misconduct.
The medical profession carries a requirement that physicians conduct themselves by the utmost standards of professionalism and ethical behavior. Medical schools tend to reflect these standards by requiring their students to agree to and abide by a specific Honor Code or Code of Professional Conduct. These rules often include instructions about academic honesty and integrity, but they also address how medical students conduct themselves toward colleagues, instructors, other students, and patients. Violations of the medical school's Honor Code or Code of Ethics will quite often result in serious consequences for the student, including possible dismissal.
Some examples of professional or ethical misconduct that can get a medical student dismissed are:
- Behaving unprofessionally. When a medical student acts in an immature or unprofessional manner toward fellow students, faculty, patients, etc., it reflects badly on the school and hurts patient trust levels. Specific examples might include displays of temper, use of profanity, use of racial slurs, being disruptive or argumentative, addressing another person in a derogatory or demeaning manner, etc.
- Unauthorized/unsupervised treatment of patients. Providing treatment of patients and making decisions about their treatment without supervision, as though you were their doctor, can get you in serious trouble quickly.
- Unauthorized use of prescriptions. Prescription medications are effectively controlled substances. Writing unauthorized prescriptions to yourself, friends, or patients without a medical degree is tantamount to mishandling controlled substances. So is pilfering prescription medicine for your own purposes.
- Disclosing confidential patient information. Patient privacy is a sacred trust. Breaking it can get you dismissed from medical school, just as it could cause you to lose your medical license if you do it later on.
- Inappropriate relationships with patients. It is unethical for a doctor to have a romantic or sexual relationship with a patient he/she is treating, even consensually. It is equally unethical for a student to do so, and it can get you dismissed.
Violations of Student Code of Conduct
In addition to academic, ethical, and professional expectations set forth by the medical school itself, med school students are also subject to any Student Conduct Code that is established by the college or university to which the medical school belongs. Aside from academic issues, these Codes of Conduct address behavior that is non-academic, and violating these rules may result in dismissal from the college or university—and by inference, the medical school itself.
Examples of non-academic Conduct Code violations may include:
- Drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Abuse of school resources
- Disruptive behavior
- Violating security protocols
- Acts of fraud
- Violent or threatening behavior
- Violating fire and safety policies
- Weapons possession
- Crimes committed on campus
Rules and enforcement regarding sexual misconduct on school campuses is overseen at the federal level by the Department of Education, according to Title IX. For this reason, most allegations of sexual misconduct are handled and investigated by a separate office according to federal guidelines—although some schools will also incorporate their own specific policies into the mix, as well. Regardless, being found guilty of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or related forms of sexual misconduct may result in dismissal from medical school.
Failing to Report Misconduct
If you become aware of another student's act(s) of misconduct and fail to report it to the school, you may be considered complicit, and depending on the severity of the offense, you could be subject to dismissal along with the other student. This offense is perhaps the scariest one for medical school students for two reasons: 1) It puts pressure on students to “rat out” each other; and 2) It increases the likelihood of being falsely accused on some form of misunderstanding because students are effectively being required to police each other.
What happens if I am accused of misconduct? What is the disciplinary process?
Every medical school will have its own specific policies and procedures regarding the investigation and penalties for allegations of misconduct. However, most schools follow a similar pattern in the way they handle such accusations. You should always consult your medical school's Student Policies to find out specifics for your school, but most student discipline matters will follow a general process as follows:
- Complaint. Most disciplinary processes begin when someone makes an accusation or allegation against you to the school authorities. This complaint may be made by another student, an instructor, a school employee, or anyone who observes your alleged behavior. (See “Failing to Report Misconduct” above.)
- Notification. The school will notify you of the complaint against you and the next steps to give you a chance to respond to the allegations.
- Review. The matter will be referred to the appropriate authority (usually a committee or the Student Affairs Office) to determine whether the complaint has enough merit to move forward and how to proceed.
- Investigation. The school will conduct an investigation to explore the allegations further and decide whether there is enough evidence to pursue discipline against you.
- Hearing. If the person(s) in charge of investigating the offense believes there is enough evidence to move forward, they will typically schedule a formal hearing in which you will appear before the disciplinary committee or board and present your defense to the complaint against you.
- Determination and punishment. After the hearing, the committee/board will make a determination of your guilt or innocence and recommend appropriate disciplinary action. You'll be notified of the results.
- Appeal. You have the right to appeal an adverse decision before it becomes final.
What happens during a misconduct investigation?
Every medical school will conduct its investigations a bit differently according to its own policies, but the goal of any investigation is essentially the same: to determine whether there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to pursue some sort of penalty against you. Student discipline investigations may last from a few weeks to a few months, and may include any combination of the following steps:
- Interviewing you. The person or persons tasked with investigating the allegations will meet with you (sometimes more than once) to ask questions regarding what happened. This is effectively your first opportunity to give “your side” of the story.
- Interviewing the complainant. The investigator will also ask the person who made the allegations to come in and answer questions to fill in details about what happened.
- Interviewing witnesses. If there was anyone who may have observed the alleged misconduct, they may be asked to meet with the investigator to present their version of the facts. (IMPORTANT: Witnesses may also include anyone you have spoken with about the alleged misconduct. More on that in a moment.)
- Gathering evidence. The investigation will also look for any evidence or documentation to support the complaint against you. Evidence may include anything from school assignments/tests to text messages.
Am I allowed to continue attending classes during the disciplinary process?
Yes—unless the school indicates otherwise. For particularly egregious allegations, some schools have a policy of issuing an emergency or temporary suspension while the case is ongoing. If this is the case, you will be notified to stop attending classes. However, in the vast majority of cases, you can (and should) continue attending classes, labs, and other school-related obligations, and you should continue completing assignments. If the case ends up ruling in your favor, the last thing you want is to fall behind.
Should I discuss the investigation with others?
You are typically not forbidden to speak with others about the allegations against you. However, it is often not in your best interest to do so. In a medical school investigation, viable witnesses aren't just considered those who saw what supposedly happened, also those who have heard about what happened—and that includes people you talk to. In other words, any fellow student or colleague you might confide in, or tell your side of the story to, may actually be called as a witness to share what you told them. This could actually backfire. Therefore, we advise our clients to be guarded about sharing details with others while the investigation is ongoing.
What are the ramifications of being dismissed from medical school?
Dismissal from medical school can have catastrophic consequences for you as a med student (or as a parent, if you have a child in medical school). In addition to the humiliation of the dismissal itself, it can severely hamper any future career prospects for the student in the field of medicine. It may also cause a cascade of additional consequences that may make life difficult for years to come. Here are just a few difficulties that a medical school dismissal may cause:
- A permanent mark on your academic record. Regardless of where you go from here career-wise, a dismissal generally stays as a permanent location on your academic record, which may deter prospective employers from hiring you.
- Difficulty resuming your education. If you decide to try medical school again, you'll likely have difficulty getting accepted elsewhere. Medical schools have very high admissions standards, and many only accept a small percentage of the applications they receive. A medical student who has already been dismissed for any reason usually doesn't rank high on the priority list of candidates.
- Loss of academic progress. If you do manage to resume your medical education, in most cases, a dismissal erases all your prior progress academically. In effect, you'll be starting medical school over from the beginning. Depending on how far along you were, you could be looking at years of repeated work (at additional expense).
- Insurmountable student debt. Medical school tuition can easily exceed $100,000, especially if you include your undergraduate education. If you've been going to school mainly on student loans, you'll have to pay those loans back, even though you may not have the physician's salary you were counting on.
Considering all that is at stake and all the possible complications, suffice it to say you want to do everything possible to avoid getting dismissed from medical school.
Could my other degrees be rescinded if I am dismissed from medical school?
Depending on the school and where you got your previous education, yes. Some colleges and universities (not all) reserve the right to rescind all a student's degrees in the event of dismissal or expulsion from the school. That means if you got your undergrad and/or master's degree from the same university where you're now attending medical school, and you get dismissed from medical school, it is within the realm of possibility that you could lose all your previously earned college degrees in addition to being dismissed—IF that university spells it out in their policies.
Are there alternative penalties or sanctions that might allow me to stay in medical school without being dismissed or expelled?
Yes. In fact, many medical schools will issue less severe penalties (often called “sanctions”) for more minor offenses that allow the student to remain in med school. Every school will list the possible penalties for misconduct in their Codes of Conduct, Honor Code, or other written rules. Common examples of these sanctions may include:
- Formal reprimand
- Academic probation
- Restricted privileges
- Restitution (i.e., you may be required to pay for any damage you caused to the school or someone else)
- Remediation (the school may recommend remedial courses to get you back on track academically)
- Failing grade
- Repeating a school year
- Suspension (removal from medical school for a specified period of time)
Can alternative sanctions or penalties still hurt my career even if I wasn't dismissed from medical school?
Yes. While any other type of sanction is preferable to being dismissed from medical school, other forms of discipline can still hurt you career-wise. Many schools have a policy of allowing certain disciplinary actions to be permanently noted on your academic record, which can be perceived as a negative when potential career opportunities open up. The best possible outcome when facing possible disciplinary action is to prove the allegations false or have them dismissed.
Is remediation a fair alternative to dismissal from medical school?
Many medical schools will offer you some sort of remediation as an alternative to outright dismissal, especially when the issues are academic-related. While this can definitely be preferable to dismissal, remediation comes with its own set of disadvantages, and it is frequently recommended or even mandated when it is not really necessary.
Remediation is essentially a repeating of material you've already studied—whether it's a single course, a lab, or a full semester or year of school. You will spend additional time and pay additional tuition for the privilege of remediation—and if you already know the material, that's a waste of both time and money for you. If you are facing possible dismissal due to academic shortcomings or bad grades, you may be able to avert remediation and dismissal with a successful grade appeal. If the only alternative is dismissal, remediation is usually the next best option—but we recommend getting advice from an attorney-advisor before accepting an offer of remediation to make sure it's the best possible outcome for you.
Can I reapply to medical school if I have been dismissed?
That depends on the school's policies as well as the type and severity of your alleged offense. Some medical schools are fairly lenient or forgiving regarding dismissals, especially when they involve academic shortfalls—and in many cases, they will allow you to reapply for admission after a set period of time. However, with many medical schools, dismissal indicates a permanent separation from the school, and you won't be allowed to reapply.
Can I appeal my dismissal from medical school?
Yes. You have the right to appeal any adverse disciplinary action, including and up to dismissal, before the decision becomes final.
How much time do I have to submit an appeal?
Generally speaking, not much. Most schools only allow a window of 5-15 days to file an appeal, depending on the stated policies of the school. Furthermore, your appeal must be highly compelling as it is generally your last opportunity to avoid disciplinary action.
On what grounds can I submit an appeal?
Every school has a different set of policies in place under which students are allowed to appeal a negative disciplinary action—some more restrictive than others. You'll need to consult your medical school's Student Handbook to find out their specific policies. However, most schools will allow you to appeal a decision on one or more of the following grounds:
- Introduction of new evidence—If new evidence has come to light that was not available during the investigation/hearing but could have changed the board's decision, you can bring that evidence forward at your appeal.
- Procedural errors—Claiming that the school, the investigator and/or the hearing board did not follow school policies in conducting the disciplinary process, resulting in an unfavorable decision.
- Disproportionate punishment—Claiming that the penalty is overly harsh compared to the severity of the offense.
- Bias—Claiming that the investigation was biased against you and that you were therefore not given a fair chance to clear your name.
What happens during an appeal?
Just as with the other parts of the disciplinary process, each medical school establishes its own rules and policies as to how appeals are conducted. That said, most school appeals follow the same basic general process as follows:
- Submitting a written request. For some schools, this step simply means you are informing them of your intent to appeal; in other schools, the written request constitutes the appeal itself, and you'll present all your documentation and arguments in writing.
- Consideration stage. The school authorities will review your request for an appeal and consider any additional evidence or arguments. This may take the form of a full-blown secondary hearing (usually in front of a separate committee) to present your appeal in person, or it may be an informal meeting with a Dean or subcommittee. In some cases, the consideration stage is simply the appeals committee meeting to review your written request.
- Final decision. Whoever is appointed as the “final say” (usually a Dean) will rule on your appeal. At this point, one of three things will happen: 1) The decision will be overturned; 2) The punishment will be modified or reduced; or 3) The decision and punishment will be upheld. Whatever the outcome, the school considers this decision to be the final word on the matter.
Am I allowed to have an attorney represent me during the disciplinary process?
In the vast majority of colleges, universities, and medical schools, a student facing discipline will not be allowed to have an attorney represent them in an official capacity (since it's not considered a legal matter, although a school will often have their attorneys involved in a behind-the-scenes capacity, if not directly involved in some instances - always to protect the school's interests). However, schools know what is at stake, and as such, schools do typically allow the student to have an attorney who acts in an advisory capacity. Sometimes, the attorney-advisor is allowed to be present during hearings and appeals. In other cases, they are only permitted to advise the student outside of the disciplinary proceedings.
How can an attorney-advisor help me avoid dismissal?
Involving an attorney-advisor can give you a much better advantage when facing possible dismissal from medical school. The attorney-advisor can:
- Make sure you are fully aware of school policies and procedures so you know what to expect and how to prepare
- Help you gather evidence and witnesses to bolster your defense
- Offer sound advice on how to present your side, both during interviews and at the hearing
- Provide insights on how to negotiate for leniency from the committee
- Help you prepare a compelling appeal, if necessary
In addition, having an attorney-advisor provides an additional layer of accountability for the school, helping ensure that they abide by their own policies and procedures and afford you every opportunity to defend yourself against the accusations.
Why should I consider hiring an attorney-advisor?
Having an attorney-advisor greatly improves your chances for a better outcome. Here's why:
- It levels the playing field. When you are accused of misconduct as a medical school student, you are, by definition, entering the disciplinary process at a disadvantage. No matter how “fair” the school claims its process is, the authorities still have the advantage of knowing the policies and procedures better than you do. Hiring an attorney-advisor, someone who understands the school's policies and how the disciplinary process works, helps to give you an equal footing.
- The burden of proof is on you. Most schools don't hold themselves to the same burden of proof as even the criminal justice system does. You are not necessarily “innocent until proven guilty,” nor is the school required to prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Most schools, in fact, use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which means they only have to be 51 percent convinced of your guilt in order to declare you guilty and penalize you. When the stakes are that high (and not in your favor), you need someone who can help you navigate the process skillfully.
Ultimately, medical students accused of wrongdoing or academic shortfalls are far more likely to avoid dismissal with the help of an attorney-advisor. At the end of the day, the cost of lost tuition and academic progress is far more than the cost of hiring professional help to assist with your student defense.
I have just been notified that I have been accused of misconduct and may be dismissed from medical school. How soon should I consult an attorney-advisor?
Generally speaking, the sooner, the better. Some students and their parents assume the time to hire an advisor is during the hearing or even the appeal. In reality, the earlier an attorney-advisor gets involved, the better prepared you will be and the greater your chances for avoiding dismissal.
If you are a medical student accused of wrongdoing or facing dismissal over academic or other issues, there is simply too much at stake to risk facing the disciplinary process on your own. With his many years of experience with student defense cases, attorney Joseph D. Lento is considered a nationwide expert and has successfully helped countless students across the country avoid dismissal from medical school and rescue their careers. Why risk your future by facing a disciplinary process alone that is naturally skewed against you? Take steps now to avoid the worst and secure your future. Contact the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 today to see how we can help.