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Wednesday Mar 25, 2015

Mismatch: Why the Disconnect Between Student Interest and Student Choice?

I matched into family medicine. The number of students matching into family medicine increased for the sixth year in a row. Now it's time to celebrate.

Or is it?

My husband, Rob, helps me find the paper lantern containing my Match information. More than 3,000 students matched into family medicine last week as part of the 2015 National Resident Matching Program.

Although the number of students matching into family medicine through the National Resident Matching Program increased again this year, the uptick was small, especially among U.S. medical school graduates.

This leaves many -- students and physicians alike -- asking, "What gives?" Everything we have been hearing points to increasing student interest in family medicine, so why aren't more students matching into the specialty?

First, it's true that student interest in family medicine is increasing. The AAFP has reached out to students in many ways, and student membership in the Academy has grown from 14,833 in 2010 to 26,900 today. Student attendance at AAFP's National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students has increased substantially each of the past four years. And family medicine interest groups (FMIGs) also are reporting growth, with new groups being formed and interest in existing groups increasing. We even have FMIGs at schools that lack departments of family medicine.

And second, it's not a question of lack of demand. For eight consecutive years, family medicine has been the highest recruited medical specialty(www.merritthawkins.com) for physician employment.

So again we are left wondering, 'Why the disconnect?' The interest and the demand are there, so why doesn't the increase in our match rate reflect this?

Unfortunately, there's no single easy answer. Instead, we see interwoven barriers preventing a smooth translation from student interest into student choice of family medicine. The AAFP has for years investigated these barriers and worked to develop and execute plans to overcome them. That work continues, and there are ways you can help.

The issue of student debt has two components: the debt itself and overall physician payment, which affects students' ability to repay their debt. Many fourth-year medical students recently completed their exit loan counseling, and, after years of trying not to worry about the amount of debt they were accruing, they finally had to face it.

Loan amounts vary from student to student. I consider myself fortunate to be the recipient of a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholarship for part of my medical education. Yet even with the scholarship, my student loan debt is $172,000. This is a scary number for me, but not as scary as the mountain of debt some face. One of my colleagues, who also is going into family medicine, owes $410,000.

He applied for an NHSC scholarship during medical school, but there simply was not enough funding for all the students who applied. So yes, we still need to take a look at student debt and how to alleviate more of it, including through more scholarships and loan repayment programs, lower loan interest rates, ensuring public loan forgiveness programs remains intact, and more.

Equally important is physician payment reform. Students are worried their income will not cover their debt and the cost of living, let alone the expense of starting a practice. With a 21 percent Medicare payment cut set to go into effect on April 1 if Congress doesn't act to repeal the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula, this topic has been center stage for practicing physicians and the AAFP in recent weeks. I urge you to reach out to your legislators and tell them to repeal the SGR.

Despite all the great work going into finding solutions for student debt and payment reform, students still worry these two massive issues are a long way from getting solved. These concerns can make them hesitant to choose family medicine, and this is where practicing family physicians can make an immediate and direct impact through mentoring.

For example, family physician Mark Goedecker, M.D., of York, Pa., has visited many medical schools, including mine, to share his family's story(bit.ly) of overcoming substantial student debt. His main message is "You can afford to be a family physician." Of all our FMIG events in the past four years, Dr. Goedecker’s talk was the most well attended and the most inspirational.

But financial topics are not the only issues medical students want to hear about from residents and physicians. We want and need more family physician role models! We need to see your enthusiasm and passion for family medicine; we need to see family medicine's broad scope and its diversity of patients; we need to see you combating burnout; we need you to show us the way.

We can get some of this insight from conferences and meetings, especially National Conference, but you can help build and maintain student enthusiasm and passion for family medicine all year round. We want to see family doctors caring for kids; performing vasectomies; and doing prenatal care, palliative care, sports medicine and more. Show us, talk to us and teach us.

Showing us your passion for family medicine through mentorship also helps us understand the strength, value and importance of family medicine. Show us how primary care is delivered in teams, and that all members of the health care team, including our nurse practitioner and physician assistant colleagues, have a unique and valuable role in patient care. Help dispel the many myths and misperceptions about family medicine that students hear.

Imagine what would happen if some of these barriers to student choice were removed, and more students who would make phenomenal family doctors followed their passion to family medicine. It's what needs to happen to eliminate the primary care shortage and achieve our quadruple aim of better care, better health, lower costs and happier physicians.

Kristina Zimmerman is the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Posted at 03:22PM Mar 25, 2015 by Kristina Zimmerman

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