Record Number of Med Students, but More Needed to Help Physician Shortage

Joanna Broder

October 29, 2013

Despite record numbers of students applying to medical schools in 2012-2013 and enrolling this year, the United States still faces an impending physician shortage if Congress does not raise caps on residency funding, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) announced today.

Medical schools have done their part to expand enrollment, AAMC President and Chief Executive Officer Darrell Kirch, MD, said in a teleconference yesterday, and new medical schools have opened, making room for more students. Likewise, 48,014 students applied to medical school last year, with the number of first-time enrollees in US medical schools at an all-time high of 20,055.

"So the students have stepped up and done their part. The medical schools have responded quickly and with clarity, and now Congress needs to do its part and lift this 16-year-old ban on the number of training positions," Dr. Kirch said.

In 1997, as part of the Balanced Budget Act, the government limited Medicare funding of graduate medical education at 1996 levels for most teaching hospitals.

Today, teaching hospitals still face restrictions on their ability to develop or expand new programs, according to written workforce policy recommendations from the AAMC.

If Congress does not raise the caps, "we could face serious shortages of physicians across the board, geographically and across specialties," Dr. Kirch said. "This will not be an isolated problem. It will be a crisis for our nation."

He went on to praise students who applied to and enrolled in US medical schools in record numbers despite the prospects of staggering debt and no guarantee of attaining postmedical education in the form of a residency.

They are every bit as qualified as previous groups of applicants, with an average grade point average of 3.5 and a combined, median MCAT score of 29, Dr. Kirch said. Three quarters of the applicants also reported research experience, and two thirds said they had performed voluntary community service.

"Despite what you may hear from some quarters whether the future of medicine looks bright, college students, people out in the workforce are voting with their feet and saying that medicine as a career is an extremely attractive career choice," Dr. Kirch said, adding, "and these are our nation's best and brightest on multiple dimensions."

He highlighted demographic information about the 2012-2013 medical school applicant pool as well as those who chose to enroll for the first time this year.

The 48,014 students applied to US medical schools last year constituted a 6.1% increase from the previous year. The 20,055 who enrolled for the first time were a 2.8% increase over last year.

"Looking at the overall picture, the thing that has struck me so strongly is that both the number of applicants and the actual number of enrollees in medical schools is at an all-time high," Dr. Kirch said. "We haven't seen a level like this since 1996."

Women applying for the first time to medical school increased by 1102 (6.9%) compared with 2011-2012.

The number of Hispanics/Latinos enrolling in medical school for the first time was 1826, which is an increase of 5.5% over the previous year. This figure might not accurately reflect the percentage change, however, because the AAMC changed its methodology for reporting race and ethnicity this year, Dr. Kirch noted.

"We think that is a function of a lot of outreach on the part of our member schools and also their growing...attention to holistic review of applications, and really looking at what sort of cultural competence does an applicant bring to the table when they're going to be working in this very multicultural nation that we have," Dr. Kirch said.

More students applied to and enrolled in medical school in 2012-2013 than the previous year despite not being guaranteed a residency position after graduation and the prospect of having enormous debt — approximately $170,000, according to Dr. Kirch — upon graduation.

Students applying to medical school know what they will likely face in student debt upon graduation, Dr. Kirch said, "but they have faith that the career will be gratifying and that the career will support them adequately financially."

In March 2013, there were "a significant number" of newly graduated medical students who did not match to a residency program, Dr. Kirch pointed out.

There are "roughly" 28,500 first-year residency positions, and graduates from US medical schools must compete for them with graduates from US osteopathic schools and foreign medical schools, many of whom are US citizens, as well as physicians from other countries.

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