What the Residency Slot Shortage Means for the Future of Healthcare

According to the National Resident Matching Program, the 2016 Main Residency Match was the largest on record, encompassing 42,370 registered applicants and 30,750 positions. While an uptick in graduating medical students and residency slots seems like good news, the skewed numbers tell a different story. Of this year’s applicants, 75.6% matched with a residency program, leaving a quarter of graduates without positions. These statistics are due in large part to the shortage of residency slots available for medical school graduates. In other words, there are more registered applicants than positions available.

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The reason for the shortage of residency slots can be attributed to the fact that, in a recent effort by schools to address the country’s growing physician shortage, the number of medical school graduates has increased by more than 23 percent. However, the number of residency training positions has not been able to keep pace.

So what does this imbalance mean? Here are four ways the residency slot shortage will affect the future of healthcare:

1. The physician shortage will continue. Increased enrollment in U.S. medical schools has not been a successful solution to physician workforce issues. A study by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicted that the shortage of physicians would grow from 46,000 in 2013 to 90,000 doctors by 2025. Despite medical school enrollment statistics, fewer residency slots mean fewer future physicians. 

2. Non-traditional work arrangements will come into play. The nationwide physician shortage is underscored by mal-distribution of doctors throughout the country. In order to counteract this uneven distribution, some states have passed laws to allow unmatched graduates to work in medically under-served areas without doing a residency. Arkansas, for example, approved new rules allowing recent medical school graduates with ties to the state to work as a “graduate registered physician” before residency. 

3. Primary care specialties will have an advantage. If a newly introduced GEM bill is adopted in order to increase Medicare-funded residency positions, students will be better off pursuing a “shortage specialty” like primary care. That’s because the bill would create 3,000 new residency spots each year and require at least 1,500 of them to be used for a shortage specialty residency program as identified in the National Health Care Workforce Commission’s report.

In order to take steps toward resolving America’s current and future physician shortage, finding solutions to the lack of residency slots issue must be forefront. While increasing the number of medical graduates is a step in the right direction, it will only take us so far. And because physician training can take up to a decade, the clock is ticking, and the problem needs to be addressed now.

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