The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

https://hechingerreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/201201-Kirk-ME.mp3

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — When Covid-19 restrictions reduced his work schedule, Sam Smith turned to another time-consuming job: applying to medical schools.

He’d always wanted to go into medicine, Smith said. But what was happening in the world had a big impact on the kind of medicine he hopes to practice. Now, Smith said, he wants to specialize in infectious diseases.

The experience of the last year “makes me think, there’s probably going to be another pandemic” in the future, said Smith, 25, who has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder and moved here when his girlfriend started Harvard Law School. “So I want to be on the front lines of the next one.”

: Sam Smith, who is applying to medical schools, says he has been inspired by the example of health care workers during the pandemic; he plans to specialize in infectious diseases. “I want to be on the front lines of the next one,” he says. Credit: Meredith Nierman for The Hechinger Report

Even as college and university enrollment overall has dropped this fall, Smith is part of a wave of what officials say is an all-time record number of applicants to medical school.

The number of medical school applicants is up 18 percent this year over last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, driven by the example of front-line medical workers and high-profile public health figures such as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and by renewed attention to inequities in the delivery of health care.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Geoffrey Young, the AAMC’s senior director for student affairs and programs, who compares it to another response to a traumatic moment in American history: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“After 9/11, there was a huge increase in the number of men and women that were entering into the military,” Young said. “So far in my lifetime, at least, and for as long as I’ve been in medical education, that’s the only comparison that I could make.”

The Stanford University School of Medicine reports a 50 percent jump in the number of applications it received this year over last year, or 11,000 applications for 90 seats. New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine says it’s seen a 4 percent increase, but that comes on top of a 47 percent rise last year after the medical school made tuition free; this year, it has more than 9,600 applications for 102 spots. The Boston University School of Medicine says applications are up 27 percent, to 12,024 for about 110 seats.

Kristen Goodell, associate dean of admissions at the Boston University School of Medicine, which has seen a 27 percent increase in applications. “People look at Anthony Fauci, look at the doctors in their community and say, ‘You know, that is amazing. This is a way for me to make a difference.’” Credit: Meredith Nierman for The Hechinger Report

“What’s been happening this year is that more of the people who had at some point thought about medical school decided to stick with it,” said Kristen Goodell, associate dean of admissions at the school of medicine at BU. “And that, I think, may have a lot to do with the fact that people look at Anthony Fauci, look at the doctors in their community and say, ‘You know, that is amazing. This is a way for me to make a difference.’ ”

Medical school admissions officers have come up with a name for this. They call it the Fauci Effect.

Related: Progress in getting underrepresented people into college and skilled jobs may be stalling because of the pandemic

Ryan Chahal, who is also applying to medical school, is among those inspired by Fauci, he said.

“There definitely was a Fauci Effect for me,” said Chahal, 25, who lives in Tampa. “People who are interested in medicine are interested in evidence and evidence-based approaches to things, and he has been very evidence-based.”

Fauci said he’s gotten hundreds of letters from people telling him they want to practice medicine.

The United States will be short 54,100 to 139,000 physicians by 2033, while the proportion of people who are over 65 will grow by an expected 45 percent.

It’s “very flattering,” he said in an interview. “I think probably a more realistic assessment is that, rather than the Fauci Effect, it’s the effect of a physician who is trying to and hopefully succeeding in having an important impact on an individual’s health, as well as on global health. So if it works to get more young individuals into medical school, go ahead and use my name. Be my guest.”

Sahil Mehta, founder of MedSchoolCoach and a practicing radiologist. The Covid-19 pandemic “really lit a fire under people” to go into medicine, he says, helping drive an 18 percent increase in the number of medical school applicants this year. Credit: Meredith Nierman for The Hechinger Report

Among other reasons admissions officials cite for the increase in prospective medical school students is that the pandemic has given many people more free time to complete the arduous application process.

Normally, before applying to medical school, nearly half of all applicants first spend a year or two after college working, traveling, doing research, pursuing master’s degrees or volunteering, the AAMC’s Young said.

But this year, “a lot of the plans they made postgrad honestly fell through,” said Sahil Mehta, founder of MedSchoolCoach, which prepares students for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT.

Related: Pandemic speeds up influx of remote workers to small cities

“We saw a lot of students who said, ‘You know what? I’m going to apply this year,’ ” Mehta said. “Maybe they were on the fence and they saw what was happening. They saw that health care workers were really at the forefront of trying to solve this. It really lit a fire under people.”

When the dermatology practice where she was working as a medical assistant shut down temporarily because of Covid-19, Mary Grace Kelley had the chance to retake the MCAT and significantly improved her score.

“This is a perfect time of no distractions,” said Kelley, 23, who lives in the Boston suburbs and is applying to medical schools this year from her childhood bedroom in her parents’ house, which is hung with team photos and varsity letters from her time as an undergraduate Division I hockey forward. “I’m not very good at sitting still.”

Some institutions also waived the requirement that applicants submit results from the MCAT, which canceled several test dates in the spring; Stanford, which is among the schools that made the MCAT optional, reports that 5 percent of applicants did not submit a score.

Mary Grace Kelley took advantage of the extra free time she has had this year to brush up her medical school applications. “This is a perfect time of no distractions,” she says. Credit: Meredith Nierman for The Hechinger Report

Related: More people with bachelor’s degrees go back to school to learn skilled trades

So many applications have they now received that medical school admissions officers — many of them working remotely — are staggering under the volume. “My mailbox is almost full with emails apologizing for the delays,” Chahal said. “They’ve just had a huge number of applications.”

This deluge comes as the nation faces a projected shortage of physicians, and when its aging population is requiring more specialty care.

The United States will be short  54,100 to 139,000 physicians by 2033, the AAMC estimates, while the proportion of people who are over 65 will grow by an expected 45 percent. More than two out of every five doctors now practicing will reach retirement age over the next 10 years.

“We saw a lot of students who said, ‘You know what? I’m going to apply this year.’ Maybe they were on the fence and they saw what was happening. They saw that health care workers were really at the forefront of trying to solve this. It really lit a fire under people.”

Sahil Mehta, founder, MedSchoolCoach

Already, there are fewer primary care providers than are needed — internal medicine doctors, family physicians and pediatricians — in nearly 7,200 areas of the United States with a combined population of roughly 82 million people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Thirty-five percent of registered voters in a survey last year said they’d had trouble finding a doctor, up from 25 percent in 2015.

The bad news for the surge of medical applicants is that medical schools aren’t likely to expand to accommodate them next fall, meaning that the odds of getting in this year will be much lower. “It’s discouraging a little bit, to be honest,” Smith said.

And while 30 new medical schools have been accredited since 2002 — bringing the total to 155 and increasing enrollment by 33 percent, to the current 93,000 — there’s been almost no increase since 1997 in Medicare payments for residency training, which costs an average of $171,855 per year, leaving hospitals to either limit the number of residents or cover the cost themselves.

Related: Strapped for students, colleges finally begin to clear transfer logjam 

Medical school graduates finish with a staggering $241,560 of student loan debt, on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, discouraging many would-be doctors, including those from low-income and ethnic and racial minority groups; the figure is from 2015-16, the last year for which it’s available.

Eight percent of medical students are Black and 7 percent Hispanic, both proportions smaller than their share of the population. (Ten percent identify themselves as multiracial.)

“I do think that the debt probably scares off some people,” said Goodell, who is also a former chair of the Council on Graduate Medical Education.

Managed health care and more red tape and bureaucracy have increasingly also soured some people on careers in medicine, said Mehta, a practicing radiologist.  “That really started to disenfranchise the ways physicians practiced medicine. They were getting burned out,” he said.

“We are basically the next generation. We’re going to be taking care of our parents, grandparents. So there’s definitely a call to arms thinking that, if there’s another pandemic, it’ll be up to us.”

Mary Grace Kelley, medical school applicant

This year’s many medical school applicants appear undeterred, however.

“Everyone feels some sort of responsibility,” Kelley said. “We are basically the next generation. We’re going to be taking care of our parents, grandparents. So there’s definitely a call to arms thinking that, if there’s another pandemic, it’ll be up to us.”

Mehta expects the trend to continue.

“Given that about 60 percent of people [applying this year] won’t get in, you’re probably only going to see an increase in competitiveness next year,” he said. “The bigger thing is you now have people who are freshmen in college, sophomores in college, juniors in college, or even in high school, who for the last few months have been watching Dr. Fauci on TV and thinking, ‘Maybe this is for me.’ ”

Fauci said he sees the flood of medical school applicants as a sign that people are thinking about social justice — “that you have responsibility not only to yourself, but as an integral part of society.”

He said he hopes the trend will counterbalance and “maybe would even overcome the other side of the coin, which is the really somewhat stunning and disturbing fact that people have no regard at all for society, only just focusing very selfishly on themselves.”

This story about medical schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with GBH Boston. Additional reporting by Kirk Carapezza. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Your article about the increase in medical school applications is notable but paints an incomplete picture. Data cited includes only applications reported by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which represents allopathic medical students or future MDs. The reality is, one in four medical students attends an osteopathic medical school, and more than 11% of today’s physicians are doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs). Applications to DO schools, already at an all-time high, have risen more than 18% compared to this time last year, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. With a mission statement focused on equality and innovation in education, your organization would do well to provide readers with application numbers that provide an accurate, comprehensive picture of the US medical education system.

    The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and the American Osteopathic Association welcome the opportunity to collaborate in the future so that all medical students are appropriately represented.

    Robert A. Cain, DO
    President & CEO, American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine

    Kevin Klauer, DO, EJD
    CEO, American Osteopathic Association

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *