First-year Enrollment at U.S. Medical Schools Rising

Residency Training Slots Insufficient to Meet Demand

May 22, 2012 06:00 pm Sheri Porter

America's medical schools are seeing a steady increase in first-year enrollment numbers, just as the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projected in 2006. That's according to an AAMC report highlighting survey results( that anticipate first-year medical school enrollment will reach 21,376 in 2016-17.

[Stock photo of doc teaching med students]

That's a 29.6 percent increase compared with first-year enrollment statistics from 2002-03.

In a May 3 news release(, the AAMC noted that the United States faces a shortage of more than 90,000 primary care and subspecialty physicians by 2020.

AAMC President and CEO Darrell Kirch, M.D., said in the release that U.S. medical schools have been doing all they can to address a serious future physician shortage. "We're pleased to see that enrollment continues to grow, both through the expansion of existing medical schools and the establishment of new ones," he said. "But this won't amount to a single new doctor in practice without an expansion of residency positions."

In addition, the survey report noted that

  • 25 percent of the growth in first-time enrollees will occur in schools that have opened since 2002,
  • more than half of the projected growth already has occurred, with 2,850 of the projected 4,888 new slots already in place as of 2011, and
  • 43 percent of schools surveyed said they had targeted or planned to target increases in enrollment to specific population groups or to meet the needs of underserved communities.

Meanwhile, the number of osteopathic physicians continues to rise at a rapid pace. In the 2016-17 school year, first-year enrollment of osteopathic physicians is expected to reach 6,179, or double the first-year enrollment of osteopathic physicians in 2002-03.

The combined enrollment of allopathic and osteopathic physicians is projected to increase 37 percent by 2016-17 compared with 2002-03 enrollment numbers.

However, AAMC Director of Federal Affairs Christiane Mitchell told AAFP News Now that several factors have converged to create a worrisome scenario regarding the number of residency training positions supported by Medicare. She pointed out that the federal government froze financial support for residency training in 1997. Now, 15 years later, the country faces a baby boom population that is moving into Medicare and a pool of practicing physicians that includes one out of three planning to retire in the next five years.

In addition, no one could have predicted the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that would bring an additional 32 million people into the health care system

"All of those changes have come since 1997, and they are pretty significant changes," said Mitchell. The AAMC would like to see Medicare fund residency training above the 1997 cap, she added, but instead, both sides of the aisle in Congress are calling for a reduction in federal spending.

"That would be an unmitigated disaster for the nation and only would exacerbate the current and growing shortage of doctors," said Mitchell.