Today is a very big day for medical students: Earlier this afternoon, 38,377 of them found out whether they’d been accepted into one of the country’s 26,772 residency slots. It’s also a big day for the health care system too, as it gives us a sense of what kind of medicine our future doctors are interested in pursuing.
Each year, the National Resident Matching Program releases data on what kind of programs medical students are matching into. Over the past two years, it’s looked like medical students are increasingly interested in pursuing primary care. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of American students matching into primary care residencies increased by about 10 percent each year. That came after decades of declining interest, as you can see in the graph below. That shows the number of American students matching into family practice residencies, one type of primary care.
And while there was a rise in American students matching into family practice this year, it increased by just 1.1 percent over last year. Anesthesiology, meanwhile, saw some big gains: hospitals offered 78 more positions in that area, and United States students filled 725 of the 919 positions offered.
When I wrote a longer story about primary care workforce issues last month, I encountered a lot of debate about whether the upswing in family care residencies was permanent. The health care system saw a similar increase in the mid-1990s, when the government was debating health reform and there was increased talk about the value of primary care. Once that law didn’t pass, and the talk died down, the interest in primary care plummeted.
The slowdown in family practice residencies could be showing something similar: That after the debate in Washington died down, and some of the rhetoric about primary care slowed, students have become less interested in pursuing such fields. Or, it could be a temporary blip. This time around, after all, a health overhaul did pass, and it included a about a dozen provisions meant to improve primary care.
Either way, there’s a lot riding on the decisions of medical students in the next few years. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that we’ll be short about 30,000 primary care doctors by 2015. If students don’t get interested in the field, that shortage could become even more daunting.
There is definitely one good piece of news here, either way: The number of American students matching into residencies is increasing, up by 642 residents this year over 2011.