Medical schools close to reaching long-term enrollment goals

They’re adding students through expansions and openings of new schools, but education officials say more residency positions are needed to train future graduates.

By Carolyne Krupa — Posted May 22, 2012

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The nation’s allopathic medical schools are on track to increase enrollment by close to a 30% goal set by the Assn. of American Medical Colleges six years ago.

But future physician shortages won’t be alleviated unless more graduate medical education positions are created to keep pace with the growing number of medical degree graduates, education officials say.

“This won’t amount to a single new doctor in practice without an expansion of residency positions,” said AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, MD.

Based on expanded class sizes from the addition of new medical schools and expansions at existing medical schools, first-year allopathic enrollment is projected to reach 21,376 by 2016-17, a 30% increase above first-year enrollment of 16,488 in 2002-03. That means the schools will have reached the AAMC goal just one year behind schedule.

“U.S. medical schools are doing all that they can to address a serious future physician shortage in this country,” Dr. Kirch said.

The goal of increasing enrollment 30% by 2015 was set in 2006, using 2002-03 as the baseline.

An estimated 31,000 medical students will be added to the rolls above the 181,000 students that would have been enrolled without the growth, according to the AAMC Center for Workforce Studies’ annual Medical School Enrollment Survey (link).

The bulk of the enrollment growth — 58% — is from medical schools that have expanded class sizes since 2002. Twenty-five percent is from new schools that have been accredited since 2002, and 17% are from new schools that are seeking accreditation, according to the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

Osteopathic schools were not included in the AAMC goal, but they are expanding, too. Three new colleges of osteopathic medicine are scheduled to begin classes in 2013 in Alabama, Indiana and North Carolina, says the American Assn. of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

First-year enrollment at osteopathic schools rose 7% during the previous year to 5,788 in 2011-12. Total enrollment was 20,663.

“We are proud of the growth of U.S. osteopathic medical education and welcome these three new schools to AACOM,” said AACOM President and CEO Stephen C. Shannon, DO, MPH.

GME growth needed

Competition for residency positions already is high. A total of 38,377 medical school graduates from the U.S. and abroad applied for 26,722 U.S. residency positions in 2012. Of those. 22,934 applicants from U.S. medical schools were assigned first-year residency positions. AAMC officials say more residency positions are needed to train the expanding pool of U.S. medical school graduates.

“It’s a very real, immediate concern that we will have all of these medical school graduates coming out of school, and some of them won’t find a training position because there aren’t enough,” said Christiane Mitchell, AAMC’s director of federal affairs.

The AAMC projects that physician shortages nationwide will reach more than 90,000 by 2020.

Medical schools are doing their part to train more physicians to meet future demands, and now the federal government needs to step up its support for graduate medical education, Mitchell said.

Medicare funding for graduate medical education has remained stagnant since the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Now academic medical centers where residents are trained face additional threats of reduced GME funding from the federal government, cuts in Medicaid funding from cash-strapped states and reduced payments from private insurance companies. The federal government also is talking about reducing research funding through the National Institutes of Health, about half of which benefits academic medical centers, she said.

“Right now is the worst time for the federal government to cut back on its support,” Mitchell said. “In fact, the federal government needs to increase its support to make sure that patients have access to care in the future.”

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A look at growing med school enrollment

Allopathic medical schools are expected to expand medical school enrollment by 30% from 2002 to 2016. The growth has come primarily from the expansion of existing schools, but the addition of new schools also is helping, according to the Assn. of American Medical Colleges. Figures for 2012-16 are projected.

Status 2002 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Schools accredited as of 2002 (125) 16,488 18,663 18,773 18,975 19,084 19,262 19,338
Schools accredited since 2002 (12) 567 865 1,002 1,121 1,182 1,192
Schools seeking accreditation (7) 0 0 350 515 682 846
Total 16,488 19,230 19,638 20,327 20,720 21,126 21,376
Number increase from 2002 2,742 3,150 3,839 4,232 4,638 4,888
Percentage increase from 2002 16.6% 19.1% 23.3% 25.7% 28.1% 29.6%

Source: “Results of the 2011 Medical School Enrollment Survey,” Assn. of American Medical Colleges, May (link)

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