If you open Google and do a search for “Caribbean medical schools”, it will quickly become clear to you that not everyone is a fan (seriously, just check out these Reddit threads). Which is fine—not everyone likes cilantro, either—but just because something doesn’t work for one person doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t worked for hundreds.
Established, upper-tier Caribbean medical schools are credible alternatives for hardworking students unable to secure seats at US schools. That’s provable fact. Thousands of students across multiple Caribbean and international medical schools have secured residencies and moved on to fulfilling careers in medicine.
Then why do they have a negative reputation?
Not at all. Here’s why Caribbean medical schools get a bad rap: There are more than 80 Caribbean medical schools. All of them award Doctor of Medicine (MD) degrees, and the majority of them claim to offer a US-modeled curriculum. So far so good, right?
Well, not necessarily.
Completing your medical education and earning your medical degree is an incredible accomplishment, but it won’t be enough by itself to launch your medical career. You’ll need to be accepted to, and complete, a residency program—a period of intensive postgraduate training in whichever specialty you select, whether it’s a primary care discipline or more competitive specialties.
Long story short: Without completing residency, you can’t become licensed to practice medicine. And to complete a residency, you’ll need to secure an invite to the program you want.
The probability of a student successfully attaining a residency is directly tied to his/her academic performance—and academic performance, of course, correlates with both the quality of your medical program and the efforts you put in to learning and retaining the material. Residency program directors look at your clinical performance, your results on licensing exams, and a host of other metrics when they make decisions on who to invite to their programs.
Medical school graduates who fail to place in residency can try again for a future cycle—and indeed, some graduates find success on their second or third attempts. But some, unfortunately, never do, and all they’re left with is medical degree they can’t use, mounting debt, and horror stories to share on social media.
Not all Caribbean med schools are created equal. Just like medical programs in the United States, low-quality programs are far more likely to give you low-quality results.
Don’t worry, though. We’ve got you covered. Out of those roughly 80 Caribbean schools mentioned above, there are a scant handful considered reputable, successful, and legitimate by the public at large. We’ll even show you how you can use hard data—quantifiable metrics—to objectively measure a Caribbean medical school’s quality as best you can.
Though quality is subjective, there are three hard metrics you can point to that can help determine a Caribbean medical school’s overall quality.
Accreditation is a process in which experts evaluate a given program and determine whether it meets the accrediting body’s standards. Medical schools are subject to accreditation—it’s a key indicator of whether an objective, outside agency believes in the legitimacy of the degree-granting institution.
Note that there isn’t an official US accrediting body for Caribbean medical schools—meaning the Department of Education (DOE) does not personally come to assess Caribbean med schools.
Rather, you’ll want to look for a Caribbean medical school that holds an accreditation recognized by the World Federation for Medical Education/Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (WFME/FAIMER). This is important. After 2023, the Educational Commission on Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) will issue certification only for degrees from a school accredited by a WFME-recognized agency.
The two most common accrediting bodies you’ll see for Caribbean medical schools are the Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and Other Health Professions (CAAM-HP) and the Accreditation Commission on Colleges of Medicine (ACCM). Both are recognized by the WFME, and the standards employed by both agencies are recognized by the US DOE’s National Committee on Foreign Medical Education and Accreditation as comparable to US medical programs.
If the Caribbean medical school you’re considering holds one of those two accreditations, consider that a stamp of high educational quality. If they don’t, well, caveat emptor.
Caribbean medical schools have academics admissions requirements lower than those typically seen at United States medical programs. But that doesn’t mean that Caribbean medical programs are necessarily subpar or in some way easier to complete than their mainland counterparts. In fact, hundreds, of not thousands, of graduates from Caribbean medical programs get into residency programs every year.
The absolute best Caribbean medical schools are just as rigorous and comprehensive as US or Canadian programs—if not moreso, due to their accelerated nature. Furthermore, Caribbean med school graduates with their eyes on US practice are required to take the exact same test as their US counterparts—the United States Medical Licensing Examination, commonly known as the USMLE.
This three-part exam includes the following components—and one of the three is the top criterion considered by residency directors when interviewing physicians for programs.
• USMLE Step 1 tests a medical program student’s general knowledge of the basic sciences, or medical theory.
• USMLE Step 2 is made up of two parts—clinical skills (CS) and clinical knowledge (CK).
• USMLE Step 3 assesses whether medical school graduates are ready for unsupervised practice.
According to a 2018 survey of residency program directors, the National Resident Matching Program found that residency directors consider an applicant’s USMLE Step 1 score to be the single most important criterion when interviewing medical school students for a residency spot. In fact, according to that same survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents say that they would never offer a residency position to a candidate who failed Step 1 even once.
Keep in mind that for some medical programs, passing Step 1 of the USMLE isn’t enough—you’ll need to earn a benchmark score, usually set by the program director, to even enter the consideration phase. Residency directors use special software that can filter out different applicants based on certain criteria; some filter based on whether that student passed Step 1 on the first attempt, while others filter based on numerical score.
What’s this mean? If you bombed the USMLE or didn’t pass it on the first try, the odds are high that the majority of residency directors won’t see your application. That’s how important it is.
That’s why you may have seen some Caribbean medical schools touting their USMLE first-time pass rates. If it’s a high number that’s comparable or above US or Canadian pass rates, then you can feel confident about that school’s academic program and support services. If it’s not, be cautious: because USMLE Step scores are so closely tied to attaining a residency, you’ll want to attend a school that can prepare you to ace them.
Two more tips:
• It’s great to see a school’s first-time pass rate is high, but residency directors will look at your score, not at the university’s pass rate. Keep that in mind. You won’t want to just pass the USMLE, you’ll want to earn a competitive score.
• Take a look at that residency director survey we linked to before—that data will give you some great guidance as you look forward to residency. (It’s never too early to start planning.) You’ll probably be surprised at program directors consider to be the second-most important criterion in an applicant—it isn’t Step 2 of the USMLE, believe it or not.
Let’s sum up. As you’re vetting Caribbean medical programs, you’ll want to look at the following things, in addition to other important topics like financial aid and scholarships:
• Strong residency performance
• USMLE Step 1 first-time pass rate
These three aspects are what separates and distinguishes the plethora of Caribbean medical schools into different tiers. One thing to note—and that most of the top-tier Caribbean medical schools stress—is that medical programs are chances for you to succeed, but they aren’t magic bullets. You’ll have the tools, the information, and the support from faculty and peers that all medical school students need to succeed.
But at the end of the day, excelling in medical school is up to you. Here at AUA, we provide all the tools needed for our students to succeed in their paths to become Medical Doctors. Take a look into our accreditations and student success here.