University offers free tuition to encourage primary care doctors in underserved areas of Arizona

Male patient sitting in chair having consultation with doctor or psychiatrist
Another school is offering free tuition to encourage medical students to pursue careers in primary care. (noipornpan/GettyImages)

The University of Arizona will provide free tuition to medical students to increase the number of primary care doctors working in underserved communities in the state.

The university’s Colleges of Medicine in Tucson and Phoenix will cover tuition costs for medical students who commit to practicing primary care or other designated specialties in rural or urban underserved areas of the state, the school announced.

The university said it took the action to address both the severe statewide primary care physician shortage and the growing burden of student debt. The Colleges of Medicine will begin providing free tuition in the spring semester to students who agree to practice primary care in a federally designated underserved community in Arizona for at least two years after completing their residency.

The University of Arizona is the latest in a growing number of medical schools offering free tuition to encourage students to go into primary care rather than higher-paying specialties. And more schools are attaching strings to the free tuition to keep students in their state or health system.

"Arizona needs nearly 600 primary care physicians today, and the number is expected to grow to more than 1,900 by 2030," said Michael D. Dake, M.D., senior vice president for The University of Arizona Health Sciences, in the announcement.

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The scholarship money is coming from $8 million in funding appropriated by the Arizona legislature earlier this year. It will allow almost 100 students, approximately 10% of the student body, to receive free tuition at the university’s two medical schools.

"As the state's only two designated medical schools, the College of Medicine–Tucson and the College of Medicine-Phoenix are taking full advantage of the public investment approved by our state legislators, who recognize the time to address this shortage is now,” said Dake.

The university will use the remaining state funding to expand the College of Medicine-Phoenix class size.

RELATED: Doctors to lawmakers—Burden of medical school debt could have consequences for practices, primary care

Last year, New York University’s medical school became the first to offer free tuition to all its students to encourage more primary care doctors. And since then others have come up with their own programs. For instance, Kaiser Permanente announced earlier this year it would offer free tuition to all the medical students in its first five graduating classes.

Earlier this month, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine joined the list of medical schools offering free tuition as an incentive to increase the number of primary care doctors. Also, increasingly, schools are attaching conditions to the funds, as Geisinger will offer money to students who commit to practicing primary care after their residency at its affiliated health system Geisinger Health.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, Arizona currently meets only 40% of its need for primary care physicians and underserved areas are especially hard hit.

To be eligible for free tuition at the two Arizona medical schools, a student must be an Arizona resident and current full-time medical school student there. Students must complete residency or fellowship training in family medicine, general internal medicine, geriatric medicine, general pediatrics, psychiatry or obstetrics and gynecology.

Nationally, medical students carry an average of $200,000 in debt, which drives many to seek careers in higher-paying specialties. Jobs in primary care and in rural areas often pay less, contributing to the shortage of primary care doctors particularly in underserved communities.