Medical School Applicants, Enrollees Reach New Highs

Megan Brooks

October 23, 2015

More students are applying to and enrolling in medical schools in the United States, which could help ease the predicted shortage of doctors in the coming years. But without action by Congress, there may not be enough residency positions to accommodate them.

According to new figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the number of students enrolling in the nation's medical schools has jumped 25% since 2002, reaching an all-time high of 20,630 this year.

In 2015, the total number of medical school applicants rose by 6.2%, to 52,550, double the percentage increase from 2014. And the number of first-time applicants, which is considered a more important indicator of interest in medicine, rose 4.8%, to 38,460.

"It's undeniable that medicine remains an attractive career choice," Darrell G. Kirch, MD, AAMC president and CEO, said during a telebriefing yesterday.

"We had a record high again this year, as we did last year, of students applying to medical schools, over 52,000 students, and the number of first-time applicants was over 38,000 this year ― that's another record," Dr Kirch noted. "This applicant pool was winnowed down to 20,630 first-year medical students who began their studies in recent weeks."

More Diverse Bunch

"The nation's medical schools are creating innovative education and training programs to prepare tomorrow's doctors to meet the challenges of the changing healthcare environment. This dynamic landscape is leading to a record number of students applying to and enrolling in medical school," Dr Kirch added in a news release.

"We need a diverse healthcare workforce," and the data show some "encouraging trends" in diversity, Dr Kirch said, with increases in nearly every racial and ethnic category.

The number of Hispanic or Latino enrollees rose by 6.9%, to 1988, and the number of applicants increased by 10.3%, to 4839. African-American enrollees rose 11.6%, to 1576, and the number of applicants increased by 16.8%, to 4661. And although the number of Native American (including Alaskan) enrollees fell by 3.5% (from 202 in 2014 to 195 in 2015), the number of applicants increased by 2.9% (from 449 in 2014 to 462 in 2015).

Men enrolling in medical school made up roughly 52% of the student population in 2015, whereas women accounted for nearly 48%, the same as last year.

Among first-time applicants this year, the number of women rose by 6.2%, to 18,724, and the number of men rose by 3.5%, to 19,725. Among African Americans, male enrollees increased 9.2% compared with the previous year. Charts containing the complete data on medical school applicants and enrollees for 2015 and comparisons back to 2002 are available at www.aamc.org.

Residency Slots a "Serious, Looming Concern"

"It is very encouraging to see consistent increases in the number and diversity of students in medical school," Dr Kirch said in the release. "We are hopeful that this becomes a long-term trend as medical schools continue working in their communities to diversify the applicant pool through pipeline programs, outreach efforts, and holistic review initiatives."

However, a "serious concern looming over all this," he told reporters, is that federal funding for residency positions has "essentially been frozen" since 1997. "That means that while medical schools over the last decade have responded to the growing population, the increasingly diverse population, by increasing class size, by starting new schools, by pushing their diversity efforts, there is a blockage in terms of availability of residency positions," he warned.

"We have bills that are sitting in Congress now that would increase residency positions by 3000 positions a year for the next 5 years. Unless Congress acts, I fear for the ability of patients, even patients with good health insurance, to access physicians when they need it. Physician shortages won't just happen in remote rural areas. They will happen in urban and underserved communities and ultimately affect all of us," Dr Kirch said.

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