Medical-School Applications Barely Rise Even as Doctor Shortage Looms

October 20, 2009

Despite the opening of four new medical schools and the expansion of at least a dozen others, applications to American medical schools inched up just 0.1 percent this year, according to data released today by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Medical schools reached a little deeper into their applicant pools to increase first-year enrollments by 2 percent this year, to about 18,400 students. But the increase will make limited headway toward staving off what the association worries will be a shortage of 124,000 to 159,000 physicians by 2025. Fueling fears of a shortage are an aging population, an expected wave of retirements of baby-boomer physicians, and the possibility that millions of people will join the ranks of the insured if health-care-reform legislation is enacted.

"U.S. medical schools are stepping up to keep the pipeline of new physicians flowing so all Americans will have access to the care they need regardless of whatever form health-care reform takes," the medical association's president, Darrell G. Kirch, said during a news conference today.

Half of the enrollment increase was at the four new medical schools that accepted their first classes this year, at Florida International University, Texas Tech University, the University of Central Florida, and the Commonwealth Medical College, an independent institution. A fifth new school will open next year, at Virginia Tech, with at least three more schools in the pipeline.

In addition, 12 existing medical schools expanded their 2009 class sizes by at least 7 percent this year.

Preventing a Bottleneck in the Pipeline

Getting more students into medical school is one struggle. Creating enough positions for them to continue their supervised training after graduation remains another.

"We must also increase the number of residency training slots to prevent a bottleneck in the pipeline of new physicians, and ensure access to care for the millions of Americans who hopefully will attain coverage under health-care reform," Dr. Kirch said.

The association supports legislation that would increase the number of Medicare-supported training positions by 15 percent, or about 15,000 slots. The number of Medicare-financed slots is frozen at 1996 levels.

But the legislation's price tag—approximately $12-billion over 10 years—may have scared off lawmakers, who are simultaneously trying to cut health-care costs.

None of the health-reform bills under consideration by Congress would increase Medicare spending for graduate medical education. They would instead redistribute about 1,000 unfilled residency training slots among a small group of states.

In this year's applicant pool, men outnumbered women, 52 percent to 48 percent. The number of black applicants increased by 4 percent this year, while the number of Hispanic applicants dropped by 1 percent.

Dr. Kirch said he was optimistic that applications would be up next year. From January to August of this year, more than 67,000 people took the Medical College Admission Test—nearly 3 percent more than the same period last year.

Similar efforts to expand the physician pipeline are taking place at the nation's osteopathic medical schools, whose graduates are more likely to pursue careers in primary care.