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NEET needs a rethink

Is it time to explore alternative approaches?
05:30 AM Jul 01, 2024 IST | Dr Rumana Makhdoomi
neet needs a rethink

Recapitulating our student days is such a pleasure. We had a school where we studied, played games, engaged in art, recited poetry, participated in debates, had memorable picnics, went for treks and would volunteer for NCC and NSS.


We had friends. We were smart, articulate, crazy and fashionable. We went for vacations, mingled with people around and never hated school. Almost all of us did well in life and became productive and useful citizens - a few became doctors too.


Where is that school and high school nowadays? Who has taken away all that fun and activity from our schools? Are the examinations like NEET and JEE responsible for emptying our schools of that fun and creativity?


It is true that a sizeable population of our youngsters (either on their own or because of parental pressure) wants to pursue medicine and engineering, and conventional schools are not the places where one can prepare for such examinations.


Mind you, these examinations need a continuous and a rigorous preparation that leaves no room for any other activity. So, coaching centers in various parts of the country hook children early and impose a spine breaking schedule on young children who lose their creativity in their quest for cracking NEET and JEE - the monster gateways to medicine and engineering.


While I feel the same pain for those who go into engineering courses through JEE, I being a doctor associated with medical education and also a mother to an aspiring medical student, would restrict myself to NEET and its usefulness in making good doctors.


NEET or the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test is the entrance examination for admission into medical and dental courses in India. It is an all-important and all crucial single examination that determines the future of aspiring medical students. The examination has been in the news lately for paper leaks and alleged irregularities.


While the matter is in the honorable supreme court for proper redress, I would like the policy makers to look into the impact that this all important examination is having on the fragile minds of our youngsters leaving them in agony and depression.

We have to understand that these young kids go through Boards and also prepare for the NEET. The pattern of examination in Boards is different from that in the NEET. Board examinations are elaborate and extensive; NEET is a three-hour plus mind squeezing and body drenching exercise.

It puts to test the patience and resilience of a 17-18-year-old giving him a single annual opportunity to vomit the contents that he has mugged up over three or four years of constant stress away from home and all that is human. The paradox is that Boards do not prepare you for the NEET and studying for NEET will not help you in the Boards.

The question here arises as to why is the examination pattern different in Boards than that in the NEET? If NEET is the true test and the all-important examination then why have the Boards? If Boards are important then why have the NEET? This dichotomy leaves students with utter confusion with a negative impact on their physical and mental health.

To tackle this they register in coaching institutions for NEET and go to dummy schools for clearing their Boards. The schools exist on paper and lack all the activities that we would see in a conventional school. School deprivation and isolation at a time of life when school is needed the most makes the students vulnerable to mental disorders.

I have yet to understand why Board performance does not matter in selecting doctor trainees for the country. After all Boards do the assessment and are elaborate enough to give an impression about the academic performance of a student. Students do burn midnight oil to clear Board examinations. Our Board results (Whether CBSE or State Boards) are recognized internationally for admission to various undergraduate courses in the US or the UK.

Board examinations could be modified, whole or a part of the result used in selecting students for the MBBS and BDS courses. For instance 20 percent weightage could be given to 10th Boards, 10 percent to 11th Boards and 20 percent to 12th Boards. This would ensure a fair evaluation of the student leaving little room for manipulation and dependence on a single examination.

As a professor of medicine I know how little the subjects that matter in the NEET matter in medicine. Physics the hardest of all and the subject that sucks the medical aspirants hardly has a utility in medicine. A student who is poor in physics will find it difficult to clear the NEET but a student who is poor in physics can clear MBBS with ease. Medicine is not physics-centric. So just the basic concepts of physics may be asked not the rocket science. Chemistry knowledge requirement too is limited for MBBS. Biology is relevant but elaborate botany not a requirement for understanding and clearing medicine.

Public health, statistics, genetics, epidemiology, and immunology besides research are the subjects that need to be touched and will go a long way in helping students understand medicine. It is important to give an overview of ethics and empathy to students and to evaluate them on practical problems.

The historical aspects of various diseases e.g., how the life cycle of malarial parasite was discovered, how polio vaccine was discovered, how insulin was discovered, how penicillin discovery altered the course of infective diseases needs to be taught so that a scientific temper is built up in the generation aspiring to study medicine.

There should be a weightage for voluntary work in hospitals, charity organizations and some points for art and creativity. Medicine is a lot about heroism, communication skills and life saving acts. The young heroes who do outstanding community service should be given extra points.

The examination for instance NEET in this case that takes years to prepare should not be a three-hour exercise but should have multiple sittings. Do we think about a student who falls sick on the day of examination after preparing for it for three hard years? Do we think about a student whose loved one dies on a day prior to the examination while he was waiting for it anxiously? After all you are giving doctors to the society. Evaluate them well and care for their well being so that they serve the profession well.

I strongly feel that good doctors are bred in schools where their attitude and aptitude is tested and not in coaching centers where the focus is on MCQs and just MCQs. The system is such that NEET becomes almost impossible to crack without coaching which is expensive and stressful. So many dreams end before they take off. Studying medicine is difficult; you need to have passion for it. Students may have the passion and all that needed to become doctors but may not have the skills to crack NEET.

They try once, twice and many times but fail. They cannot handle a failure. It kills their instinct, creativity and demoralizes them. What do we do about such students? Do we let them forget their dream? How do we handle that dejected lot? In whose custody do we groom them? Do we have a plan for them? The pathetic condition of students getting into depression and being forced to give up their struggles by ending their life is a matter of concern. The coaching institutions are ill equipped and lack a mental health support system.

Far away from the hot deserts of Rajasthan to the congested alleys of Delhi I hear the cries of NEET aspirants asking for a change in the system, change in the method of evaluation - a method that is not rigid, that is not cruel.

Now we also need the examination that is not vulnerable to leaks. Let us confess NEET is too huge an examination and a difficult one to make it leak proof. We have to make it student friendly. We need good doctors but first we need happy youngsters. NEET is in need of a total overhaul and this is the time to make it happen.

The author is a professor of Pathology at SKIMS. The views expressed are her own.