The American population is growing and aging. As the ‘baby boomer’ generation reaches retirement age, another 15 million people will become eligible for Medicare over the next several years. In addition, the passage of health care reform means that 32 million more Americans will become newly insured. Factor in the advances in medicine that offer hope to more people every year, and it is clear that the current shortage of physicians and other caregivers will only get worse.
Across the country it is estimated, that, today, we need 50,000 more physicians. This gap will only get bigger as nearly one of every three physicians plans to retire in the next decade. We certainly need more primary care physicians, but shortages also exist in a wide range of specialties. Here in Northeast Pennsylvania we feel acutely the need for more psychiatrists, obstetricians, neurologists and general surgeons, as well as a range of sub-specialists.
The visionary leaders of this community who founded The Commonwealth Medical College did so to address this critical need. The goal was not just to produce more physicians, but also to create a medical education that orients the doctor to the needs of the patient. Our curriculum emphasizes long-term relationships between medical students and patients, rather than the episodic exposure more typical of other medical schools. It emphasizes active learning over lectures, team-based care involving partnerships with other health professionals, and service to the community. For this reason, it attracts a remarkable kind of student who is committed to this mission.
On May 10, 66 members of TCMC’s second graduating class received their M.D. degrees. This brings our number of physician graduates up to 123, all of whom are training in excellent residency programs across the state and beyond. Many have expressed a strong commitment to return to this community to practice. Last year we admitted our fifth and largest class, with 100 students, who were selected from more than 5,000 applicants. We give preference in selecting students who are more likely to put down roots here — 74 of these 100 are Pennsylvanians and 23 are from Northeast Pennsylvania. This year we had nearly 6,000 applicants for 100 places in the next entering class.
Across the nation, medical schools have expanded, but increasing the number of graduates alone will not alone solve the problem. All physicians must complete at least three years of residency training after medical school; some specialties require six or seven years of residency training. And the federal government, which funds most residency positions, capped that funding 17 years ago. So the number of residency positions has remained relatively flat while the number of medical graduates has risen progressively.
TCMC, The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education and hospitals in this region are eager to expand the number of residency programs in this region so that our graduates will not need to move elsewhere to complete their training. The challenge is daunting, particularly if the federal government is unable to expand funding for residencies. The governor has recently announced plans to fund additional residency positions in the state, but the current proposal is modest. There is also a prospect that the state may create loan repayment incentives for young physicians to settle in under-served areas. TCMC is advocating for these measures, as we continue to offer excellent medical education to students who will serve this community as fine physicians.
Steven J. Scheinman, M.D, is president and dean of The Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton.