A record number of students applied and enrolled in U.S. medical school this year, bucking predictions that President Barack Obama’s health-care system overhaul would dissuade people from becoming doctors.

Total medical school applications increased 6.1 percent to more than 48,000, breaking a record set in 1996, according to data released today by the Association of American Medical Colleges. The number of students who enrolled this year rose 2.8 percent, exceeding 20,000 for the first time, the group said.

Hospitals and medical schools have been trying to find solutions to a doctor shortage that is projected to grow 10-fold to 130,000 by 2025 as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act adds at least 25 million new patients to the health system. During debates around the law, some doctors voiced concern that it may make the medical profession less attractive. Today’s numbers show otherwise, said Darrell Kirch, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based medical colleges group.

“I’m a baby boomer and among my generation, a lot of colleagues are struggling with the feeling this isn’t what we signed up for, a complex organization with a lot of physicians,” Kirch said in a telephone interview. “But premedical student groups and medical students see the world totally differently: the vast majority say they want to be employed in systems.”

That’s because larger systems afford new doctors more resources, he said. What’s more, fewer medical students have interests in running private practices.

Osteopathic enrollment

Additionally, enrollment in osteopathic medical colleges grew 11.1 percent in 2013, and has almost doubled in the last 10 years, according to data from the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Osteopaths have a more holistic approach than traditional allopathic physicians, and students receive a D.O. degree rather than an M.D.

One of the biggest challenges will be what happens when the students finish their initial studies. More than 75 percent of residency programs -- where graduate medical students train for three to seven years before working independently -- are funded by the U.S. Medicare program, which is being subjected to mandatory federal budget cuts. In addition Congress has kept the number of slots capped at the same level since 1997.

More slots

“We need to increase training positions now because we’re concerned that if Congress doesn’t act we’re not going to have enough residency positions to fully train these physicians,” said Atul Grover, the chief public policy officer for the medical colleges group, in a telephone interview.

The lack of training may lead to a physician shortfall if graduates can’t find residency programs to join, Grover said.

This year, 14 medical schools expanded class sizes by more than 10 percent. Since 2002, medical schools have increased the number of entering students by more than 20 percent, in an attempt to alleviate a projected physician shortfall to meet the aging of the baby boomers, those born from 1945 to 1965. A national shortage of 92,000 physicians is projected for 2020.

The Census Bureau estimates that 81.2 million people in the U.S. will be 65 or older in 2040 from 40.2 million in 2010.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, known as Obamacare, is expected to provide 25 million uninsured Americans with health coverage by 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.


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