Harvard leads the way in ditching medical school rankings

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published February 7, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Harvard and other prominent medical schools recently announced that they will no longer provide data to the U.S. News Best Medical Schools rankings.

  • Opponents of this ranking system claim that it is narrow and elitist. Some feel it leads to medical schools’ gaming the system by concentrating on weighted factors to up their rankings.

  • In the long run, where a person goes to medical school could matter far less than how compassionate and knowledgeable a clinician they are.

Top medical schools are no longer providing data to the U.S. News Best Medical Schools rankings, raising the question: Why are they withdrawing?

The mass exodus is reportedly due to concerns over schools’ gaming the ranking system by using weighted factors to improve their ratings, as well as claims that the system is elitist and narrow in scope.

This controversy calls into question the value of such rankings. How do they impact physicians, institutions, and the quality of healthcare?

Follows law school trend

On January 17, 2022, Harvard Medical School announced it would no longer be participating in the U.S. News & World Report ranking system, despite attaining the No. 1 spot for 2023, as reported by The New York Times.[]

In the following week, other top institutions, including Stanford Medical School, Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, all decided to part ways with the rankings.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, this spate of medical school desertions follows a trend seen with law schools that was sparked by Yale Law School’s jumping ship from the U.S. News rankings for law schools in November 2022.[] More than a dozen other top law schools subsequently did the same, including Stanford Law School.

Harvard rationale

By his own admission, dean of the Harvard Medical School Faculty of Medicine George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, was inspired to stop providing ranking data to U.S. News by his colleagues at Harvard and other top schools.

In an open letter published by Harvard Medical School, Dr. Daley expressed his misgivings about the specifics of the U.S. News rankings calculations.[]

“My concerns and the perspectives I have heard from others are more philosophical than methodological, and rest on the principled belief that rankings cannot meaningfully reflect the high aspirations for educational excellence, graduate preparedness, and compassionate and equitable patient care that we strive to foster in our medical education programs,” he said.

He felt that rankings “create perverse incentives” to report misleading or inaccurate data, set policies aimed at inflating rankings and divert financial aid to high-scoring students rather than those with financial need.

"Ultimately, the suitability of any particular medical school for any given student is too complex, nuanced, and individualized to be served by a rigid ranked list, no matter the methodology."

George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, Harvard Medical School

According to Dr. Daley’s letter, Harvard Medical School will still continue to share data on its admission website, with raw, unweighted data available through the AAMC.

His sentiments were echoed by other top brass at US medical schools that will no longer share information with U.S. News, as reported in the Wall Street Journal article. Administrators characterized the rankings as narrow and elitist, with their focus being test scores, institutional wealth, and reputation.

“The rankings provide a flawed and misleading assessment of medical schools; lack accuracy, validity, and relevance; and undermine the school’s core commitments to compassionate care, unrivaled education, cutting-edge research, a commitment to antiracism, and outreach to diverse communities,” claimed Icahn Dean Dennis Charney and Medical Education Dean David Muller in a January 24, 2023, statement to the school community, as recounted in the Wall Street Journal.

A clinician’s take

In an interview with MDLinx, family medicine physician Kristen Fuller, MD, offered her views on Harvard’s and other medical schools’ backing out of the U.S. News ranking.

“At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter where you went to undergrad, medical school, or law school,” she said. “What matters is how hard you have worked, how you can apply your clinical knowledge to patient care, and how you can empathize, communicate, and show compassion to patients.”

“Do your patients like you because you went to Harvard—or because you are a compassionate, knowledgeable, approachable physician?” Dr. Fuller asked. “I actually think residency programs hold more merit than medical schools, as residency is really where you learn to ‘become a doctor.’”

She also said that there are plenty of other factors that go into deciding which medical school to attend.

"Just because a certain school ranks high does not mean that it is the best fit for the student."

Kristen Fuller, MD

“Geographical locations, being closer to home, size of the student body and campus, mentorships, racial diversity, extracurricular activities, and inclusion are also very important factors associated with a well-rounded and correct fit to succeed in higher education,” Dr. Fuller added.

How the rankings work

U.S. News went into great detail to explain its weighted ranking system in a March 2022 article.[] The rankings are split into two lists: research and primary care.

“Both [lists] evaluate schools on faculty resources, the academic achievements of entering students and qualitative assessments by schools and residency directors,” the authors wrote. “The research rankings include two measures of research productivity, while the primary care rankings incorporate two metrics for graduates going into primary care.”

Various objective and subjective indicators are considered in the weighted score that determines ranking, including peer assessment scores, residency director scores, MCAT scores, GPA, faculty resources, and federal research funding.

For instance, peer assessment and residency directors’ assessment are each weighted 0.15 for both the research and the primary care medical schools.

Of the 192 medical and osteopathic schools surveyed in 2021–2022, 130 schools provided enough data to be ranked.

What this means for you

Following in the steps of many prominent law schools, Harvard and other top medical schools are no longer participating in the U.S. News ranking system. These institutions argue that such rankings are subjective, elitist, and narrow. Ultimately, where you go to medical school may matter far less than how knowledgeably and compassionately you care for your patients.

Read Next: What are the consequences of medical school admissions going ‘race-blind’?

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