By April Short
Health/Science Reporter

As Congress deliberates over a plan for fiscal health, the medical education community calls for a portion of the economic stimulation plan.

“Medical education plays a role in the nation’s fiscal health, as well as physical health,” said Edward Salsberg, director of the Center for Workforce Studies at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

AAMC petitioned Congress Nov. 11 to consider the role medical schools and teaching hospitals play in the nation’s fiscal health and provide $1.9 billion to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), increased support for Veterans Affairs research facilities, Title VII health professions, the National Health Service Corps, and the country’s emergency preparedness and response programs.

“It has been well documented that adding major academic medical centers, research and care are important generators in the economy,” Salsberg said, “and that both the research side and the services side employ many people.”

Medical schools across the nation have already put into action a plan of their own to meet the nation’s staggering health care needs. Many schools have increased the number of students they admit this year to meet the country’s need for qualified physicians.

First-year enrollment in the nation’s medical schools increased by almost 2 percent in 2007, reaching the highest enrollment in history: over 18,000 students. The enrollment continues to climb.

Doug Levy is the special assistant to the dean at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine. He said increased enrollment will allow the country to plan for better health care in future generations.

“If you look at the demographic trends, especially in California, you will notice that we will not have enough medical professionals to take care of our population in the future if we do not start creating them now,” Levy said. “Better health care in general is one of the best things we can do to protect the economic future. Because right now health care expenses are one of the largest costs in our society. If you look at how much we spend per person in our society versus other nations, we aren’t getting a whole lot for it.”

Since 1980, UC undergraduate enrollment has increased by 69 percent, but

enrollment in UC health sciences has increased by less than 2 percent. This means that, while the population continues to increase and the number of qualified applicants for medical schools rises, there has not been a significant increase in medical school enrollment in roughly 30 years.

“We need to be creating more physicians to do an even better job of addressing the needs of our society,” Levy said.

UCSF has increased its enrollment by joining the UC Programs in Medical Education Initiative (PRIME), along with many other UC medical schools.

PRIME seeks to address California’s most disadvantaged groups and communities by enrolling roughly 10 extra students in UC medical programs. These extra students are individuals who have expressed interest in working with underserved urban communities.

Health science major fifth-year Bobby Petro intends to apply to medical school in June. Petro said he understands the nation’s need for physicians, but he is cautious of the possible implications increased enrollment could entail.

“If [medical schools] are increasing their enrollment, then their standard for accepting people might be a little lower, and that could decrease competition because they are letting more people in,” Petro said. “Their standards for accepting people should still be high even though they are accepting more people.”

Salsberg responded to concerns such as Petro’s.

“We know there are many, many more applicants to medical schools than there are slots for them to go into,” Salsberg said. “We’ve looked at MCAT scores and grade point averages, and we’ve surveyed our deans, and we just don’t see a diminution of the quality of medical students because we are letting in more students.”

Levy emphasized the need for action in the sphere of medical education as Congress deliberates over the nation’s economic future.

“We have to be thinking now about medical needs that we are going to have 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now,” he said, “because if we make mistakes now, it will be too late to fix them 20 or 30 years from now.”