Mar 15, 2024 - Health

Medical school graduates are returning to ERs

Data: The National Resident Matching Program; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: The National Resident Matching Program; Chart: Axios Visuals

New doctors' interest in emergency medicine is rebounding after the field became the embodiment of professional burnout during the pandemic.

Why it matters: New data out Friday from The National Resident Matching Program shows medical school graduates are continuing to choose higher-paying specialties like orthopedic surgery, ophthalmology, thoracic surgery and radiology.

  • The percentage of filled residency slots in primary care and pediatrics is falling — a possible sign of worsening gaps in care for tens of millions in underserved areas.

By the numbers: A total of 44,853 medical school graduates applied for 41,503 available positions during this year's Match Day.

  • 95.5% of the 3,026 emergency medicine residency positions were filled, reversing a two-year slide.
  • Meanwhile, nearly all of the obstetrics and gynecology residency slots filled. The metric has been closely watched since the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade made some graduates have to factor which state a residency program is in.

Zoom in: Nearly all emergency medicine residency slots were filled between 2017 and 2021 and the American College of Emergency Physicians predicted there would be a surplus of nearly 8,000 ER doctors in the U.S. by 2030.

  • But the fill rate plunged 18% by 2023 after COVID-19 placed huge strains on emergency departments.

The other side: The rate of filled primary care residencies fell 1.4 percentage points this year. The same went for pediatrics, where 92% of pediatric residencies were filled this year, compared with 97.1% in 2023.

  • There still were 719 more primary care positions offered in 2024 than last year.

Overall, about 5% more students applied to U.S. residency programs than last year.

  • That increase comes primarily from international medical school graduates and students in osteopathic medical schools that take a more holistic approach than traditional M.D. programs.
  • Osteopathic doctors can apply into any residency specialty but often gravitate toward primary care and could be key to addressing primary care shortages. Nearly a quarter of osteopathic students matched into internal medicine this year.

The bottom line: Nearly 94% of residency positions were filled by the matching program. Unfilled positions can still be snatched up by graduating medical students who did not match into a program.

  • Post-match residency hires can help alleviate physician shortages, but more federal funding for new residency slots is needed to improve access to care across the country, the Association of American Medical Colleges has said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that the primary care residency fill rate fell 1.4 percentage points, not 1.4%.

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