A record number of first-year students enrolled in medical school this year as officials work to meet a looming shortage of physicians, the group that represents U.S. medical schools announced Thursday. But without an increase on residency slots that were capped 16 years ago, many might not complete the training needed to become physicians, said Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, the president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges and the former senior vice president for clinical activities and dean at Medical College of Georgia.
While he touts the need for more diversity among budding physicians, Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University actually doubled the numbers of blacks who enrolled in medical school this year.
The association reported that the number of first-year medical school students topped 20,000 for the first time this year at 20,055, with about half of the 538 increase due to four new medical schools enrolling their first classes, Kirch said.
The number of applicants and new applicants also were at record highs. The AAMC had called for medical schools in 2006 to increase enrollment by 30 percent and they are now on pace to reach that goal by 2017, Kirch said.
“This is extremely important to us because we face some serious physician shortages,” he said. “Obviously this is the entry point of the people who can help us with those shortages.”
The group estimated there will be a shortage of 90,000 physicians by 2020. But while medical school enrollment is going up, the number of residencies students need to complete their training after graduation have been capped since 1997 and Congress has refused to raise it, Kirch said. Already this year, there were “several hundred” graduates who could not secure a first-year residency through the process, Kirch said.
“They want to go into medicine, they want to take care of patients and they were not able to find a residency slot to allow them to do that,” he said. AAMC officials estimate it would cost Medicare about $1 billion a year to add 4,000 more slots.
While numbers are up, there is still a great need to increase the diversity of those applicants, Kirch said. The association supports outreach programs to undergraduates as the way to do that, as opposed to quotas or setting numerical targets, he said.
“What we’re advocating is a thorough system of looking at applicants as a whole and also efforts to make the opportunities known to people who might otherwise have not seen them,” Kirch said. “We think that’s the best way to increase diversity.”
Those efforts are apparently paying off for black first-year students at MCG, which went from nine last year to 27 this year, a three-fold increase among the 230 enrolled.
“This is very important of course because of the diversity of Georgia as a state,” said Peter Buckley, the MCG dean.
Many schools like MCG are also benefitting from regional campuses that increase their exposure elsewhere in the state, Kirch said. Of the 141 U.S. medical schools, at least 111 have a regional campus and many are in more rural and underserved areas of those states, he said.
“It’s just another tool to give opportunities to these incredibly interested and talented and diverse applicants,” Kirch said. MCG officials have credited big increases in applications the last two cycles in part to clinical campuses in Albany and Savannah. The school will also benefit next year from the opening of the J. Harold Harrison, MD, Education Commons Building and the awarding of the first Harrison Scholars, partial- and full-ride scholarships funded by a historic $66 million gift from the late Dr. Harrison to Medical College of Georgia Foundation, Buckley said.
“That’s going to make us even more competitive,” he said.