Still too few medical students pursuing primary care

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© John Lund/Marc Romanelli/Blend Images/Corbis

More medical students applied for residency programs in primary care this year than last, but the future need for general practitioners still far outpaces the number of doctors opting for careers in primary care. According to data from the 2010 report from the National Residency Matching Program—the system that pairs up graduating medical students with accredited residency programs—2,722 medical students applied for primary care programs this year, a 3.4% increase from the 2,632 who did so in 2009. Yet, while that small increase is encouraging and may reflect the beginning of a trend back toward primary care, the number of future doctors who will pursue internal medicine is still far lower than it was 25 years ago; in 1985, 3,884 medical students pursued residencies in primary care.

Of course, all of the medical students going on to internal medicine residency programs will not necessarily go on to be primary care providers—the figures from the 2010 matching report include individuals who will eventually go on to other specialties, such as cardiology, for example. Twelve years ago, more than half of medical residents in primary care went on to careers in general internal medicine; now a quarter or fewer do.

Even as fewer doctors pursue careers in primary care, the need for general practitioners continues to grow—in large part due to the increasing medical needs of the aging Baby Boomer population. If current trends continue, by 2020 the U.S. will face a shortage of 40,000 family medicine practitioners, according to estimates from the American Academy of Family Physicians. So what deters doctors from pursuing primary care? Longer hours, and lower compensation than specialties are two major factors—especially for young doctors trying to make financial plans to pay back students loans for four years of medical school.