September 5, 2001

Applications Drop For Medical Schools

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Cornell’s graduating class of 2001 followed career paths which did not include medical school last year, reflecting a nationwide trend of four straight years of declining interest in the field.

Applications to the nation’s medical schools fell 3.7 percent in 2000, a percentage also mirrored among Cornell applicants. Exact numbers for University undergraduates were not available in time for publication.

Attractive jobs in dot-coms and information technology, along with the prospect of big medical school debts, may be among the reasons for the decline, said Barbara Barzansky, secretary of the American Medical Association’s (AMA) medical education council and author of the study.

Add the increased paperwork, regulations and concerns that have come with managed care and, she said, ”it’s not as friendly an environment as it used to be.”

Judy Jensvold, the senior associate director of health careers at Cornell and one of the advisors of pre-med undergraduates, agreed that applications to medical school may be tied to the economy.

“There will always be people who go to medical school no matter what,” she said. “Then there are some people who say, maybe if I can get a terrific job, I won’t go to medical school right away.”

The decline appears to be leveling off; it was 6 percent in 1999.

Karin S. Ash, director of Career Services at Cornell, expects to see a turnaround in terms of the number of people applying to medical schools.

“When the economy goes down, everyone goes back to school,” she said, noting that many students previously took of advantage of the opportunity to make quick money in the financial services sector. “It always goes in cycles.”

In addition, she said, more high school students are applying to college than ever before which may also help boost applications to medical schools.

Jensvold, however, did not expect to see an instant spike because the economic downturn is still a relatively-recent occurrence. “These things aren’t an immediate reaction. There’s an echo effect,” she said.

The applicant pool last year totaled 37,092. It included 17,274 women, a 0.9 percent drop from 1999, the report found. The number of minorities climbed 2 percent to 4,266.

At Cornell’s Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical School in Manhattan, applications also fell to 6,344 in the fall of 2000, according to U.S. News and World Report. However, the acceptance was still a mere 3.5 percent for this year’s class, which was made up of 101 students.

Officials at the medical school were not immediately available for comment.

Despite the drop in applicants, ”there are still more than twice as many applicants as there are places” for them, said Dr. Jordan Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The recent decline in applications may, however, mean good news for pre-med undergraduates — but only slightly.

In 1989, when applications to medical school were at their record lowest, the acceptance rate for Cornell students who desired to go to medical school was 90 percent. This number dropped to 55 percent in 1996 when applications were at their record high.

The current decline began in 1997, and in 1999, the Cornell acceptance rate was 70 percent.

Jensvold noted that although deans of medical school are always concerned about a drop in applications, she added, “It’s a pretty soft drop; it’s not a precipitous drop.”

Considering the thousands of applicants who compete for about 100 seats at any medical school, a three percent drop isn’t a cause for alarm, according to Ash.

“They turn away people with 4.0 GPAs,” she said.

The AMA report, published in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, also found that the number of patients available to participate in clinical teaching during 2000-01 decreased in almost half the nation’s 125 medical schools.

Some experts say managed care is partly to blame. Insurance companies may be steering patients away from teaching hospitals because the care there can be more expensive, Barzansky said.

The shortage may help explain the results of two other new studies in the same journal that suggest that some medical schools may not be adequately preparing students to deal with common problems and procedures.

One study, by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers and based on a 1998 survey of 2,626 students completing their residency assignments nationwide, found that more than one in 10 felt unprepared to handle certain treatments and procedures. Medical school typically lasts four years, followed by three to seven years of residency.

Training in handling ”nontraditional patients” such as those with AIDS, drug abuse and chronic pain was cited as particularly deficient.

”Teaching hospitals and medical schools need to provide residents with quality training that reflects the diversity of the patients they will one day treat,” said Dr. David Blumenthal, the study author.

The other study found a serious inability to perform an abdominal exam among first-year residents in internal medicine and pediatrics at two New York medical institutions.

The study involved 148 graduates of U.S. medical schools and 35 from foreign schools and measured how many of 13 procedures each student performed in an exam on a young adult patient.

Well over half the foreign students did all the procedures, which included exposing the abdomen, inspecting it and squeezing it to feel the liver, kidneys and spleen. Fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. grads performed nine of the 13 procedures, according to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Downstate Children’s Medical Center.

Barzansky said her report found that 58 percent of the schools are undergoing major curriculum changes, with many trying to focus more on small-group learning and hands-on work in the community instead of traditional lectures.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Archived article by Beth Herskovits