April 16, 2020
By Dr. Murray Feldstein
There are about 20,000 medical students graduating from medical school this year. But instead of walking across a stage as would be the norm in the coming weeks, some are matriculating early and joining the frontline healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19.
This isn’t the first time young medical school graduates have joined the ranks of the nation’s healthcare workers in a time of crisis. During WWII, the Armed Forces instituted several programs to quickly get more doctors into the military.
In 1944, the government and civilian hospitals cooperated in shaving off three months of training from the year of internship (the first year after graduation from medical school) and from each of two years of a residency (specialty training) program. This permitted both generalists and specialists to meet critical shortages in both the civilian and military medical workforce nine months sooner. Then and now, utilizing the talents of recent and early medical school graduates is just one way to increase the physician workforce.
It now takes about 11-12 years of training after high school to get general internists, family doctors, and pediatricians eligible for practice. Add an additional 1-4 years are required for medical and surgical subspecialists. But if medical school programs could also be shortened by the same three months that were saved in post graduate programs during WWII, we could reduce the time it to train a highly competent physician by a full year. This is tantamount to increasing the medical workforce by 25,000 highly trained physicians over each training cycle.
If there is any good to come out of the catastrophic pandemic that now confronts us, it is that going forward, we can apply the commonsense measures that we are now taking in order to address some of issues that will remain after we emerge from this crisis. The shortage of physicians provides us such an opportunity.
Shortening medical training programs can not only help to alleviate shortages of healthcare workers during the worst of times—such as wars and epidemics—it can also help eliminate the chronic healthcare shortages that were endemic in normal times. We need to seriously reexamine the way we train and license healthcare providers.
Dr. Murray Feldstein is a Visiting Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.