The U.S experienced a surge in the number of medical schools being built during the ‘60s and ‘70s that were followed by a sharp fall in that number during the two decades between the '80s and 2000 when only one medical school was built. Insufficient federal support provided little incentive to found new medical schools leading to a two decade period of nearly static medical school enrollment rates. The New England Journal of Medicine attributed this slump to a physician surplus (in 1990 the U.S had 238 active physicians per 100,000 citizens although only 138 per 100,000 were estimated to be required), but the doctor shortage we are faced with today has necessitated new medical school development.
Recently, states and private donors have taken the initiative to found new medical schools and expand existing schools’ class sizes accounting for an estimated 30% increase in enrollment rates from 2002 to 2017. The growth of osteopathic schools in particular has played a large role in this development—the 14 osteopathic schools available in the U.S during the 1980s have more than doubled in number since then and they currently make up nearly a quarter of U.S medical school students.
The timing for this expansion couldn’t be any better—according to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), 2014 displayed a record number of applicants totaling nearly 50,000 medical school hopefuls with just over 20,000 enrollees. The establishment of new institutions allows the U.S to keep up with the supply of interested medical students while offering opportunities to a more diverse pool of applicants who would otherwise have little to no chance at a medical school education. Due to the locality of funding, many of the newly established institutions are being founded in rural areas, which is promising news for the prospect of rural physicians in the future, an area deemed vulnerable to the impending doctor shortage.
Despite the positivity behind the establishment of these new schools, advocacy groups like the AAMC express concern for their futures because of the residency shortage. The stringent 17-year cap on federal support for training hospitals continues to limit the amount of residency positions available, allowing only a fraction of medical school graduates to receive the training necessary to become doctors in the future.