More U.S. medical schools are churning out more doctors, but residency slots don’t keep pace

Doctor
Medical schools are enrolling more students, but that's not the only answer to a predicted physician shortage. (Pixabay)

In what’s good news for the predicted physician shortage, first-year enrollment at U.S. medical schools has increased by 29% since 2002.

That’s due in part to more medical schools in the country, according to a new report (PDF) from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). As of March, the number of medical schools granting M.D.s in the U.S. increased by 26 since 2002, and five more schools are in the pipeline but not yet accredited. And the American Osteopathic Association accrediting body added 14 D.O.-granting schools in that same time period.

But the enrollment expansion and creation of new medical schools isn’t the entire answer to the physician shortage predicted by the AAMC. The group says the country could see a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030.

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Even though the number of medical school students is up, that growth may not be supported by opportunities in graduate medical education. Some 64% of deans at schools across the U.S. indicated they are concerned about the availability of residency positions in their own state and 78% are concerned about the national availability of residency slots. Entry-level residency programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education are growing at a rate of only about 1% per year, the report said.

Some 54% of medical schools reported experiencing competition for clinical training sites from other healthcare professional programs, a substantial increase from around one-quarter of respondents in 2009.

But the country is making progress toward addressing a likely future physician shortage. In 2006, the AAMC recommended a 30% increase in medical school enrollment—or close to 5,000 additional students—by the 2015-2016 academic year. The survey results indicate that the 30% goal will be attained by 2018-19 and exceeded in future years, according to the report.

Medical schools are also committed to increasing diversity among their students, the report said. Nearly all respondents (99%) said they had or were planning programs to recruit a more diverse student body, up from 84% in 2015. Programs are being geared toward increasing the number of students from minorities now underrepresented in medicine, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and students from rural and underserved communities.

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As well as the increase in enrollment at M.D.-granting medical schools, enrollment is increasing at D.O.-granting schools, where first-year enrollment increased 163% from 2002. Combined first-year enrollment at both types of medical schools increased by 9,859 students, a 50% increase compared with 2002.

While medical schools are doing what they can to address an expected physician shortage, the AAMC wants to see Congress pass a measure to end a longtime cap on funds choking the number of medical residencies in the U.S. Federal caps on Medicare-funded residency training positions remain effectively frozen at 1996 levels.