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Is There Really a Physician Shortage?

Large coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act have reignited concerns about physician shortages. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) continues to forecast large shortfalls (130,000 by 2025) and has pushed for additional Medicare funding of residency slots as a key solution.

These shortage estimates result from models that forecast future supply of, and demand for, physicians – largely based on past trends and current practice. While useful exercises, they do not necessarily imply that intervening to boost physician supply would be worth the investment. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Most physician shortage forecast models assume insurance coverage expansions under the ACA will generate large increases in demand for physicians. The standard underlying assumption is that each newly insured individual will roughly double their demand for care upon becoming insured (based on the observation that the uninsured currently use about half as much care). However, the best studies of this – those using randomized trials or observed behavior following health insurance changes – tend to find increases closer to one-third rather than a doubling.

2. A recent article in Health Affairs found that the growing use of telehealth technologies, such as virtual office visits and diagnoses, could reduce demand for physicians by 25% or more.

3. New models of care, such as the patient-centered medical home and the nurse-managed health center, appear to provide equally effective primary care but with fewer physicians. If these models, fostered by the ACA, continue to grow, they could reduce predicted physician shortages by half.

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I Was Told There Would Be No Math

Someone has been listening to me.  Or rather, to me and a growing number of voices that are questioning the requirements for admission to medical school.  I have argued in a past blog that you won’t get more good primary care doctors, who practice a lot of humanities in addition to the science, if the only people you admit to medical school are scientists.  Two medical schools and the American Association of Medical Colleges are beginning to agree.

Pauline Chen gives a good overview of what’s happening in this area here.  Essentially, Boston University and the medical school at Mt. Sinai have made pretty radical efforts to apply either more than the traditional evaluation points to their admissions process, or different ones altogether.  Mt. Sinai, in particular, has an extraordinary an early-acceptance program for college sophomores and juniors in which they can get into medical school without the MCATs, and without a few of the standard pre-med science and math requirements. In return, the accepted students have to continue to major in an humanities-related field and maintain an adequate GPA.  They also have to undergo intensive science enrichment courses prior to matriculation.  BU hasn’t gone quite that far, but they have included many more “holistic” data points into their admissions decisions, a process that is extremely labor intensive for the schools’ admissions staff.

Both schools have great ideas that are showing some promising results.  I see a couple potential problems:

1. Mt. Sinai seems to be sort of cramming in all the old science requirements in off-hours, allowing students to pursue wider studies in college. I would rather see a larger decrease in the science and math requirements.  Basic chemistry and biology are probably necessary, but no one has ever explained to me why you need physics.  Or calculus.  You don’t need most of this stuff in medical school.  All you need in medical school is the ability to put your head down and push through the memorization.  You don’t need math, you just need patience.  The thing is, the only way to get rid of the math and science is to get rid of the MCAT, because believe you me you can’t get through that behemoth with an english major.  Then, even if you do that, you eventually run into Step 1, the first of the three-part exam you take in medical school to pass medical school.  The Mt Sinai kids might need more “enrichment” courses to get through that.  If those hoops are eliminated, you might find some great doctors underneath those mountainous requirements.

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Could Private Investment Be A Game Changer For Med Student Debt?

Each year, medical students incur more than $166,750 in medical school debt, according to the AAMC. Despite the organization’s conclusion that medical student debt is not a determining factor in choosing a medical specialty, the cost of education is a major concern for the future of health care. Medical students and physicians across the US have made extensive time commitments during their 20s to mastering the foundations of medicine and completing a residency. New physicians today face an exorbitant amount of debt that takes anywhere from 10 to 30 years to repay. We must continue to attract the brightest and smartest students into medicine without deterring them by cost. All Americans and the newly insured 32 million US citizens are counting on my generation to become the future of medicine. We cannot afford to let a price tag deter us from this responsibility.

When a friend and I created our medical school’s first student state lobby day, the solution proposed by many legislators was to find a side job or take out more student loans. As any physician would know, medical students already work and study for more than 70 hours a week, which does not allow for earning a substantial side income.

I propose a unique business model, “Invest in a Medical Student’s Tuition Program,” (IMSTP) to help mitigate student loan debt. I began working on this idea three years ago, after I presented it to the AAMC’s Organization of Student Representatives. My goal is to create a new venture that would eliminate one of the two financial problems facing students: cost of tuition and interest rates. Because the cost of tuition is set by the university, I decided to tackle the 6.8 percent interest rate set by federal government Direct Loans.

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So it Turns Out that Lots and Lots of People Still Want to Be Doctors


As I noted last week, I get a little annoyed by the seemingly constant public complaints of physicians, coupled with threats to leave medicine and dire warnings that no one will want to be a doctor in the future. This is in spite of it still being one of the most trusted professions around, and one that is darn well compensated. So it’s nice to see that the general public hasn’t bought into this meme yet (from the AAMC 2011 Medical School Enrollment Survey):

  • First-year medical school enrollment in 2016–2017 is projected to reach 21,376. This projection represents a 29.6% increase above first-year enrollment in 2002–2003 and comes close to reaching the 30% targeted increase by 2015 the AAMC called for in 2006.
  • Of the projected 2002–2016 growth, 58% will be at the 125 medical schools that were accredited as of 2002. New schools since 2002 will experience 25% of the growth, and the balance (17%) will come from schools that are currently in LCME applicant- or candidate-school standing.

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Rethinking Medical Education

Last spring, in his elegant commencement address to the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Atul Gawande appealed for a dramatic change in the organization and delivery of medical care.  His reason, “medicine’s complexity has exceeded our individual capabilities as doctors.”  He accepts the necessity of specialization, but he criticizes a system of care that emphasizes the independence of each specialist.  Dr. Gawande is not alone in thinking that scientific, technologic, and economic changes require reorganization of care.  Larry Casalino and Steve Shortell have proposed Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs); Fisher, Skinner, Wennberg and colleagues at the Dartmouth Medical School have focused on reforming Medicare, and many others have also called for major changes.

I expressed similar concerns in 1974 in my book Who Shall Live?, but at that time I rejected the claim that the problems of medical care had reached crisis proportion.  In 2011, however, I agree with those who say the need for comprehensive reform must be marked URGENT.  The high and rapidly rising cost of health care threaten the financial credibility of the federal and state governments.  The former finances much of its share of health care by borrowing from abroad; the states fund health care by cutting support of education, maintenance of infrastructure, and other essential functions.  These are stop-gap measures; neither borrowing from abroad nor cutting essential functions are long-run solutions.  The private sector is equally distressed.  Surging health insurance premiums have captured most of the productivity gains of the past thirty years, leaving most workers with stagnant wages.  Not only is there a pressing need for changes in organization and delivery, but Ezekiel Emanuel and I, in our proposal for universal vouchers funded by a dedicated value-added tax, argue that such changes must be accompanied by comprehensive reform of the financing of medical care (Brookings paper).

But that’s not what I want to talk to you about today.  My subject is the urgent need to change the structure of medical education.  It seems to me that such change is necessary, and perhaps inevitable, given the revolution in medicine over the past half century, and given the changes in organization and delivery of care that lie on the horizon.

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