Shorter medical school programs spark interest among pre-meds as option to address primary care MD shortage

Carrying medical bagJust at a time when it would be good to hear some encouraging news about physicians going into primary care, a new survey suggests less than one-third of pre-med students aspire to be primary care physicians. As a result, some medical schools are experimenting with shorter medical school programs that would cut the time it takes to get a medical degree from four years to three.

About 32 percent of the 543 pre-med students who participated in the Kaplan Test Prep survey said they would pursue a career in primary care and 68 percent indicated they would go into a medical specialty. That’s not good news since the Association of American Medical Colleges is forecasting a shortfall of 90,000 physicians by 2020. Still, about 70 percent of the survey participants said they would be more likely to attend a three-year rather than four-year program. But how big an influence that would have on their career path is a bit fuzzy.

There’s currently a primary care doctor shortage of 9,000. But the rapid rate of doctors from the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age is making things worse.

Although three-year medical school programs could make sense, they are still in the experimental stage. So far at least three medical schools have introduced three-year programs for family medicine: Mercer University School of Medicine in Savannah, Georgia; Texas Tech School of Medicine in Lubbock, Texas; and New York University. In addition to a primary care track, NYU students could also pursue an accelerated track for internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics.


There has also been a surge in the number of medical schools that have been constructed in recent years and under development — 18 as of last July by Forbes’ count.

As if the physician shortage weren’t enough, there’s also a looming nursing shortage to contend with. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be a 26 percent increase in nursing positions by 2020.

The worrying question is who will treat the 32 million newly insured people expected to enter the healthcare system through the Affordable Care Act? Telemedicine can be a useful tool for healthcare access in rural and some urban communities, people with mobility issues and in emergencies, but I don’t see it as the desirable default option to address healthcare coverage concerns. Technology is a useful foil, but it doesn’t replace physicians or nurses for that matter.

[Photo credit: Carrying medical bag from BigStock Photo]