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Medical School Enrollees and Applicants: Millennials on the March

December 21, 2015

I am a proud member of Generation X, the group of people born from 1962 to 1982 and wedged in between two generations that are having a profound impact on our health care system—Baby Boomers and Millennials.

The Baby Boom generation is redefining health care demand by virtue of their numbers alone, but when you take into account their active lifestyle and the fact that people consume more health care as they age, they are the primary reason the latest physician workforce projections foresee major shortages by 2025.

On the other side of the spectrum, Millennials are making choices about work and family that will shape the nation’s workforce for decades. One of their most impressive choices is reflected in the number choosing medicine as a career. As the AAMC reported this fall, “The number of students in the nation’s medical schools has increased 25 percent since 2002, reaching an all-time high of 20,630 this year…. In addition, the total number of applicants to medical school rose by 6.2 percent to 52,550, exactly double the percentage increase from the previous year. First-time applicants … increased by 4.8 percent to 38,460.”

Millennials’ medical school classes are also becoming more diverse. In 2015, the numbers of Hispanic and African-American enrollees increased by 6.9 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively, over the previous year. Although the proportion of female medical school enrollees remained stable at 48 percent External Link, the number of female first-time applicants rose 6.2 percent, compared with 3.5 percent for men.

To address the coming physician shortage, the AAMC and the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals have worked since 2006 to increase the number of medical school graduates by 30 percent. We are on track to achieve that by 2019. While the medical profession remains challenging with years of hard study and commitment, Millennials clearly find medicine as compelling a career now as it was for me 25 years ago.

There are several possible explanations for this. Millennials are well known for their civic mindedness and desire to help others, which can correspond with an interest in medicine. The nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals also have invested in innovative approaches to medical education over the last 20 years, which I believe intrigues many in this new generation of aspiring doctors. Not to be forgotten are the simple facts of labor economics. At a time when many Americans are unemployed or underemployed, the growing health care economy offers an attractive option for talented young people, and pursuing a career in medicine is an excellent investment in one’s future.

Whatever the explanation, I know two things are certain. First, more graduates of U.S. and international medical schools are applying for residency training than can be accommodated in first-year positions. We will continue to see physician shortages External Link until Congress lifts the cap on federal funding for residency positions, which has been effectively frozen since 1997, so that more positions can be created and these talented new doctors can complete their training and care for patients.

Second, if we are to avoid a projected shortage in 2025—and the negative impact it will have on America’s patients—we have to pursue a multipronged strategy that includes promoting innovations in health care delivery and financing, supporting programs that address regional and specialty-specific physician shortages, and advancing accountability for the use of public GME funding.

Both the Millennial generation and the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals are doing their part to address our nation’s doctor shortage. Now, it’s Congress’s turn.

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About the Author

Atul Grover, MD, PhD AAMC Executive Vice President

Atul Grover, MD, PhD
AAMC Executive Vice President

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For More Information

Peters Willson
Sr. Specialist, Policy and Constituency Issues
Telephone: 202-862-6029