We have more students. Now what?

Medical schools are expanding in hopes of meeting the future demand for physicians. But will the U.S. government step up residency funding?

By Myrle Croasdale — Posted Oct. 22, 2007

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The largest medical school expansion since the 1970s is taking place, fueled by growing alarm that not enough new physicians are graduating each year to keep up with the needs of a surging U.S. population.

With some work force experts estimating that by 2020 the country will need anywhere from 85,000 to 200,000 more physicians than the existing pipeline can produce, nearly all of the nation's 149 medical schools have increased enrollment or are considering it. Among allopathic medical schools, at least 10 new ones are under discussion, eight existing schools have added new campuses and five new schools are in the process of opening. Osteopathic medical schools have added 10 new campuses since 2003.

One health policy watcher estimates that the public will spend $3 billion to $5 billion annually to cover the expansion. That's on top of private donations in the hundreds of millions.

Aware that generations of Americans' health is at stake, medical leaders and health policymakers are debating how to expand the physician work force. They're asking how the work force should be structured, whether there should be an overarching national policy or guideline to shape growth, and what any policy should look like.

So far, medical schools seem to be expanding in areas experiencing some of the largest population booms, said Edward Salsberg, director of the Assn. of American Medical Colleges' Center for Workforce Studies. This would be the southern belt of the United States, including California, Florida and Texas, he said.

In addition, diversity has not been overlooked. A Center for Workforce Studies survey found at least 23 schools are targeting part of their expansion to specific minorities.

But some say such rational planning is not taking place on the federal level. Hospitals already are faced with increasing patient loads, but this has not triggered an increase in medical residencies. At least not through Medicare, the traditional funding source.

Darrell Kirch, MD, AAMC president, said part of the problem is a decade-old Medicare cap on resident education funding. In addition, this year Medicaid announced it would end its contributions to resident education, a change that the AAMC and other stakeholders, including the American Medical Association, are fighting.

Discussions brewing

While the AAMC has been working to expand medical student numbers, the Council on Graduate Medical Education -- the organization Congress charged to keep tabs on physician work force trends, training issues and financing policies -- lost its funding and its voice, at least temporarily.

After issuing a 2003 report predicting a physician shortage, funding cuts left COGME's existence uncertain. Congress has renewed its authorization annually since, but with a drastically reduced budget. Though no longer able to afford outside analysts, COGME's members have produced two reports they plan to release next year that will recommend regulatory and legislative changes to direct more federal funds into resident training.

Robert Phillips Jr., MD, MSPH, COGME vice chair and director of the Robert Graham Center, said the organization's top agenda item is addressing the disconnect between the nation's need for more medical residents and the government's continued efforts to reduce its contribution to resident training.

One recommendation under discussion is the creation of local and regional planning bodies to help identify the size and location of medical student and resident training.

"We've got to be more purposeful about this or we'll wind up with more of the same, a maldistribution by specialty and a maldistribution by location," Dr. Phillips said.

Groups on the local and regional level would identify community needs, such as for more rural applicants or residency slots for specific specialties and geographic locations.

A national body would ensure that resources were available to support regional decision-making and to coordinate studies examining what is happening across the country. Such ideas are the basis for the two upcoming COGME reports.

"Our next step is to finalize these reports and get them into the hands of Congress and [the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission]," Dr. Phillips said.

Russell Robertson, MD, COGME chair and family medicine department chair at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said the organization also is gearing up to recommend that Congress approve a 15% expansion of residency and fellowship slots. Congress must lift a 1996 cap it placed on Medicare's GME funding for the expansion to become a reality.

Dr. Robertson said COGME also hopes to coordinate a meeting with three other committees Congress authorized to advise it on dental, nursing and community health issues, so they might present a united voice on work force concerns.

Dr. Robertson and other work force watchers agree that if resident numbers do not increase, U.S. medical school expansion will simply decrease the number of residents who are international medical graduates.

More physicians or revamp system?

Jonathan Weiner, DrPH, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore said COGME does not go far enough. One shortcoming, he said, is that it is made up primarily of physicians, mostly in primary care.

"We need a global perspective," Dr. Weiner said. "COGME is controlled mostly by medical school deans and residency directors, not the consumers, the customers, like the directors of Medicare."

A national forum on work force and health care delivery reform should include insurers, nurses and other health professionals, he said.

To better address access for the underserved, he'd like to see greater public investment in tuition forgiveness programs tied to public service for physicians.

The distribution of resident training funds also should be reworked, Dr. Weiner said. The government spends more to produce a surgeon than it does to train a family physician, he said, because surgeons take longer to train and the government subsidizes each year of their salaries. Instead, he suggested that the government could give programs a certain amount for each resident regardless of whether they train for three years or seven. This would create more equity between primary care and subspecialty residency programs, he said.

"If you think we need more primary care physicians, and I do, then we need to fix this market imbalance," Dr. Weiner said.

Richard Cooper, MD, a physician work force expert and member of the Council on Physician and Nurse Supply, a think tank supported with a grant from San Diego-based AMN Healthcare, a physician and nurse recruiting firm, sees the situation from the opposite angle.

"The policy is very simple," he said. "It is to expand the work force. You can't go into greater detail. ... The only thing we know is that we need more physicians and they will need to do what people ask them in the future."

He would like to see enough residency positions created so that 10,000 more physicians would enter the work force each year.

"We need a national effort to expand the financing of medical schools and residencies," he said. "It's a tragedy to wait."

Outside the chorus calling for work force expansion, David Goodman, MD, a pediatric and community and family medicine professor at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H., is a voice advocating for reworking the health care system instead. Dr. Goodman states in an editorial in the Aug. 3 British Medical Journal that with limited national funds, the public may be better served by improving health care delivery and promoting evidence-based care.

"The result of larger doctor training programs will probably be disappointing," Dr. Goodman states in his editorial.

Regardless of experts' positions, all agree on this: Doing nothing is the worst option of all.

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Medical school growth

With areas of population growth far exceeding the national average, California and Florida are addressing anticipated physician shortages by adding med schools. California expects that by 2015, physician demand will outpace supply by 5% to 16%, leaving a shortage of 5,000 to 17,000 doctors. In Florida, one projection shows a shortfall of more than 6,000 physicians by 2012. By 2030, the state's population is expected to have grown 60%, with a 124% jump among the elderly. Meanwhile, a quarter of Florida's physicians are on the cusp of retirement.


Existing medical schools

  • Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific, Pomona: class size, 206.
  • California Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Vallejo: class size, 125.
  • David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles: class size, 170.
  • Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles: class size, 168.
  • Loma Linda University School of Medicine: class size, 191.
  • Stanford University School of Medicine: class size, 86.
  • University of California, Davis, School of Medicine: class size, 95.
  • University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine: class size, 105.
  • University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, La Jolla: class size, 125.
  • University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine: class size, 141.

New schools under discussion

  • University of California, Riverside, School of Medicine: class size, 96. The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario area saw a population growth of more than 770,000 from 2000 to 2006. Riverside and San Bernardino counties expect a 47% surge in population by 2015, with Hispanics projected to account for the largest growth. If the school is approved, it pledges to focus on cultural competency and help students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • University of California, Merced, School of Medicine: class size, 96. If approved, the school plans to educate culturally competent physicians who want to stay in the region. Although the San Joaquin Valley is one of the state's fastest-growing areas, it trails the national average of physicians per capita with 25% fewer primary care and 41% fewer specialists.


Existing medical schools

  • Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Fort Lauderdale: class size, 230.
  • Florida State University College of Medicine, Tallahassee: class size, 103.
  • University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville: class size, 130.
  • University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine: class size, 183.
  • University of South Florida College of Medicine, Tampa: class size, 124.

New schools seeking Liaison Committee on Medical Education accreditation

  • Florida International University College of Medicine, Miami: class size, 120. If accredited, FIU would be South Florida's only public medical school. About 60% of FIU's students are Hispanic and 80% of graduates stay in the region, statistics the medical college hopes to mirror. The medical college has state approval and plans to have its first class in 2008. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach area grew by more than 450,000 people from 2000 to 2006.
  • University of Central Florida College of Medicine, Lake Nona: class size, 120. Nearby Orlando's population grew nearly 19% from 2000 to 2006, while neighboring Osceola County had a 52% jump. UCF's dean hopes to fund full scholarships for each student in the inaugural 2009 class. Plans also include 95 resident slots.

New branch campuses tied to existing schools

  • University of Miami School of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton: class size, 125. This collaboration between an established private medical school and a large public university has state approval and shares the U of M accreditation. Its first medical class started in 2005; by 2010, the school hopes to have at least 100 residents. Palm Beach County, where the school is based, has seen a nearly 13% hike in population from 2000 to 2006.
  • Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine Bradenton Campus: class size, 150. The Bradenton campus accepted its first medical class in 2004 and opened a pharmacy school this fall. The campus shares LECOM's accreditation status. The school is located in Central West Florida's Manatee County, which grew 19% from 2000 to 2006.

Sources: Individual schools; Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 14.; U.S. Census Bureau

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VA adding residents

In July, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs -- the only hospital system exempt from a 1996 congressional cap on graduate medical education spending through Medicare -- added 342 residents. It's part of a $250 million, five-year plan to add 2,000 VA residents, bringing the total to 10,800. About 300 to 400 positions are slated to be added in 2008. Positions added this year.

Specialty Slots added
Family and general internal medicine 36
Surgery & related specialties 49
Other specialties 185
Mental health 48
Rehabilitation 12
Ancillary-diagnostic 13

Source: Veterans Health Administration Office of Academic Affiliations

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