It’s the holidays which means that the students are on vacation and faculty have a little more time to unwind. Unfortunately, residents are still hard at work but celebrate the holidays in their own way in the hospital as we have discussed before. I’ll be joining them January 1st but for the moment get to enjoy some time off as well.
Even though medical schools have closed their doors for 2010 and faculty are getting much needed rest, it is time to reflect on what is needed for medical education in the New Year and beyond. While it’s been a banner year for healthcare reform, there are still some issues that are looming large for medical education, especially graduate medical education. It’s important to revisit these issues and especially focus on what the ‘wish list’ as medical education prepares for the ‘twenty-tens’.
- Funding to Meet the ACGME 2011 Duty Hour Requirements With 6 months and counting to the implementation of shorter hours for resident physicians, budgets are getting made now for the new fiscal year. On top of that list in teaching hospitals is how to make ends meet with residents who work shorter hours. Residents are low cost labor compared to hospitalists and physician extenders who are their most likely work substitutes. With the overall price tag set at over 1 billion for duty hour compliance, obtaining funding is not easy. However, securing the appropriate financing for these solutions is critical to ensuring that residents are not doing the same or more work in less time. Increasing resident work intensity may undermine any potential improvements in patient safety and resident education. To make matters worse, funding may be harder to obtain than ever since funding for graduate medical education by CMS is under threat of redirection.
- A Curriculum to Teach Doctors to Practice Cost Conscious Medicine With an unprecedented focus on how to contain costs and ‘ration’ care, we are missing one key piece of the puzzle – how to teach young physicians and physicians-in-training how to do this effectively. Most faculty physicians do not know the costs of the tests that they order making it necessary to create off-the-shelf curricula in this area. To make matters worse, cost of laboratory tests can vary by region and hospital, making a standard curriculum challenging to implement. Nevertheless, overreliance on medical testing has run rampant in teaching hospitals, largely due to the lamented “demise of the physical exam”. If one way to teach cost-conscious medicine is invest in the low cost physical exam skills, we can all learn from the Stanford 25 that is being resurrected by acclaimed physician author educator Abraham Verghese. While we improve physical exam skills and hopefully change the incentives, we will still need new tools and tips for how to train the cost conscious doctors we wish to produce. One possibility is through the use of narratives - A new group called Costs of Care launched an essay contest to and will be periodically posting stories to help raise awareness.
- More Residency Spots – As we’ve discussed, without more spots for all those new medical schools opening their doors, medical school graduates will soon face unprecedented competition during the Match without a corresponding increase in residency positions. While the assumption is that the International Medical Graduates will be squeezed out at the expense of the US graduates, this is not entirely a given. More than a few program directors of IMG exclusive residency programs say they will continue to take International Medical Graduates. Regardless, it’s the US that loses in the end given the projected doctor shortage and the only pathway to licensure is via a US residency. While CMS is exploring ‘redistributing’ spots to primary care, the general consensus is that more will be needed.
- Student Debt Relief Medical student debt continues to plague US education. While some programs, such as the National Health Service Corps, have been expanded to help address this issue, it is still important to expand such programs to reach a larger audience of medical students. One novel way to do this is to pair student debt relief with service, an idea put forth by the Editor of Academic Medicine as this year’s “Question of the Year.” Many schools responded, including our own, which created the REACH (Repayment for Education to Alumni in Community Health) Program to help. To achieve a larger scale impact, more programs on a federal and state level are needed. In the interim, the AAMC “FIRST” initiative is a terrific resource to help students navigate their debt and keeps up to date stats about the situation.
- Making Primary Care as a Desired Career The shortage of primary care physicians will devastate the US as more patients become insured and the population ages. One of the central models for healthcare reform is the spread of the patient-centered medical home, led by a primary care physician. While the future roles of nursing is explored and potentially expanded to meet this need, it will not be enough to care for complex patients with multiple disease and medications which require care coordination. So, if primary care is so important, why are more students not choosing to go into it? One striking finding in the recently released 2010 survey results of all entering medical students is the number of students who declared they would subspecialize. 12% were already on the “ROAD” (rads, ophtho, anesthesia, derm) while an additional 9% were budding orthopedic surgeons. Meanwhile, 8% were interested in family medicine. Although 18% declared an interest in internal medicine, 2/3 of these will ultimately subspecialize too. So what do entering students already know about these specialties? Well, the elephant in this room here is the income gap between primary care and specialists. As long as this disparity exists coupled with the debt discussed above, it is difficult to dissuade career decisions, especially when they are made this early! No one wants to discuss this since it pits doctor against doctor but the time for this discussion is long overdue.
While it would not be wise to wait up for Santa to deliver on these wishes tonight, keeping our focus on these issues in the New Year will surely help usher in the next decade of medical education.
–Vineet Arora, MD