Glut of U.S. medical students could dim Match Day glee

Correction appended

Nearly every fourth-year student in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences nabbed a residency spot Friday, but administrators and lawmakers worry competition will stiffen over the next decade and shut some aspiring doctors out.

Medical school graduates spend three to seven years in hospitals for health care training. Unless Congress increases funding to hospitals, the number of training slots available will tighten as medical colleges boost enrollment and international students flock to the U.S.

“We’re really aware of this issue,” Associate Dean for Administration Scott Schroth said. “There’s still great concern amongst us that this may present a problem for our graduates.”

The school is increasing its focus on advising for students who want to go into competitive residency fields like neurology and anesthesiology. On the national level, Reps. Allyson Schwartz, D.-Pa. and Aaron Schock, R.-Ill., also reintroduced a bill last week calling for more federal funding for residencies.

The squeeze would likely lower GW’s near-perfect placement rate in the future, which sat at 95 percent this year, about the national average. A record 1,097 students nationally got rejected from residency spots this year – a 29 percent increase from the year before.

And it would disproportionately affect popular, high-paying residency specialties that many GW students choose, which are most competitive nationally. Few GW students opted for lower paying specialties with open residencies, like family medicine, instead matching mostly into internal medicine and pediatrics this year.

Only 2 percent of GW fourth-year students will enter into a family medicine residency – an area seeing doctor shortages nationally – despite a bump in interested students last year.

Schroth said the looming problem has not yet negatively affected students, and added that even students who are initially rejected eventually match a year later. But advisers have worked with students who look at more competitive residencies to consider other options because of the squeeze.

“Where we’ve really focused our advising energy and our work with students is particularly on those competitive and smaller fields that are already saturated with U.S. graduates. Those are the areas where we worry more,” he said.

He added that advisers have gotten more “realistic” with students.

“Frankly as we get closer to the end of their senior year, our job is to be direct to them, you know, tell them what will happen with their specialties, you know, given your entire portfolio of work, your academic work, your extracurricular work, service, research,” he said.

Stephen Swank, who secured a anesthesiology residency in Washington state Friday, said students are not yet feeling heavier pressure from the residency squeeze, though that does not calm their nerves.

“People need to be employed after all that training,” Swank said, adding that if the government does not increase funding for residences, then “a smart person probably wouldn’t apply to medical school, but an optimistic one would and cross their fingers.”

The competition is also rising as the number of eligible people for health care grows under the Affordable Care Act. A surge in new medical schools opening is expected to bring in 5,000 more graduates by 2019.

Representatives Schock and Schwartz think the solution lies in about $1 billion in federal dollars a year to create 15,000 new residency slots over the next five years. Their bill in the House of Representatives likely faces an uphill battle as lawmakers battle budget cuts.

“The United States is on the cusp of a crisis in access to both specialty and primary care physicians. We have an urgent need to take action to ensure Americans have access to quality, well trained doctors,” Schwartz said in a statement.

Leonard Marquez, director of government relations for the lobbying group Association of American Medical Colleges, said the problem is larger than just increasing the number of residencies, pointing to the need for new delivery models and team-based care.

This article was updated March 22, 2013 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that medical students spend five years in residencies. That period can span from three to seven years. We regret this error.

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