Med schools report record enrollments, more minorities

First-year class size has grown each year of the past decade, but concerns about future physician shortages remain.

By Brian Hedger — Posted Nov. 10, 2008

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The number of first-year students enrolled at U.S. allopathic medical schools reached a new record of 18,036.

That is up 1.6% from last year's tally of 17,759 and continues a trend, started in 1999, of increasing enrollment for first-year students, according to data released in October by the Assn. of American Medical Colleges.

In 2006, the AAMC called for a 30% increase in enrollment by 2015 to combat a projected shortage of physicians. But are medical schools enrolling enough students to significantly cover the expected shortfall?

Citing unpredictable doctor retirement rates, the worsening U.S. economic climate and a cap on government-funded residency positions, AAMC CEO Darrell Kirch, MD, said depending solely on medical school enrollment is not enough.

"I can't tell you with certainty that we'll reach that [30%] expansion," he said at a news conference.

"What I would underscore, though, is that the number of medical school applicants and enrollees is only one part of this equation. ... We have not been commensurately expanding residency positions."

Dr. Kirch said the nation's struggling economy is a big factor in the unpredictability of the physician shortage, but he doesn't expect the number of applicants to drastically drop because of it. In fact, he said the poor economic climate might be a boon to the profession.

"This is a very unusual time," he said. "In times of uncertainty or turmoil, the enduring worth of careers in health care, especially as a physician, tends to stand out.

"I think if there's an impact," Dr. Kirch said, "it's that if you're in very uncertain times and people are looking for certainty, there are few things that provide that kind of certainty [more] than the profession of medicine."

More minority students

Dr. Kirch said he is pleased with the increases in first-year enrollment -- especially among minorities. Hispanic first-year enrollees are up 10% from last year and make up 7.9% of this year's entering class.

American Indian and Alaska Native enrollees increased by more than 5% from 2007, while the number of Asians and blacks grew slightly.

"For me, one of the most gratifying things was to see some diversity gains among students entering this year," Dr. Kirch said. "Medical students are beginning to reflect the population they serve."

Total medical school applicants for 2008 nearly leveled off at 42,231 after a large increase of 8.2% from 2006 to 2007 (39,108 to 42,315 applicants).

Meanwhile, first-year enrollment for osteopathic medical schools is expected to be about 4,700 students in 2008, up from 4,408 in 2007, according to the American Assn. of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

The number of applicants to these schools climbed to 11,849, which represents a 3.4% increase.

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