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Medical school enrollment is on the rise

More than 19,200 people entered their first year of medical school in 2011, a 3% increase over 2010.

October 25, 2011|By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times
  • More medical school students are needed amid a shortage of primary care doctors and specialists, experts say. Above, a building at the Los Angeles County-USC hospital.
More medical school students are needed amid a shortage of primary care… (Brian Vander Brug, Los Angeles…)

For those concerned about the shortage of doctors in the U.S. healthcare system, here is a bit of good news: The number of students enrolling in medical schools has reached its highest level in a decade.

More than 19,200 people entered their first year of medical school in 2011, a 3% increase over 2010, according to new data from the nonprofit Assn. of American Medical Colleges.

The number of enrollees has been growing steadily since 2001, when medical schools reported 16,365 students entering their first year of medical school.

In addition, medical schools attracted more applicants. Last year, 43,919 students applied, the largest number in a decade.

Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, the association's president, said the figures show that medicine remains an attractive career choice among college graduates in search of fulfilling careers. The potential for large paychecks is not a significant driver of the growing enrollments, he said.

He noted that figures are up despite the fact that students can expect to accumulate an estimated $161,000 in debt on average by the time they finish medical school.

"Today's college undergrads are very service-oriented," Kirch said. "They are drawn to medicine because they like the notion of meaningful work."

But even more medical school students are needed amid a shortage of primary care doctors and specialists, experts say.

One study by the association found that the U.S. faced a shortage of 13,700 doctors in 2010. Another study by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration projected that the country will have 35,000 fewer surgeons than it needs in 2020.

Driving the shortages are the anticipated retirements of older doctors, the increased medical needs of aging baby boomers and millions of new patients expected to seek medical care under the national healthcare overhaul.

The association said most major racial and ethnic groups had increased numbers of applicants and enrollees in 2011, although some of the gains were modest.

For example, 1,375 African Americans enrolled for the first year of medical school last year, up from 1,350 in 2010. Similarly, 1,633 Latinos entered medical school in 2011, up from 1,539 in 2010.

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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