UA College of Medicine-Phoenix grows medical class size to stem doctor shortage

University of Arizona College of Medicine - Phoenix. (Sierra LaDuke/DD)
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The University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix campus announced last week that it will expand its class size from 80 to 100 in 2020 to combat the state’s intensifying physician shortage.

The expansion is just the next step in a plan that was initiated at the university’s inception, said Glen Fogerty, the school’s dean of admissions and recruitment. The school opened in 2007 with 24 students, but the campus was built to serve 120 students.

The move is designed to address a growing need for physicians that is plaguing the country. As the U.S. population ages, so will its doctors. A study by the Association of American Medical Colleges projects that one-third of all active physicians will be older than 65 in the next decade.

However, many students are turning away from primary care and toward specializations, which often pay more. Medscape’s 2019 Young Physician Compensation Report showed that physicians with specialties make an average of $100,000 more per year than primary care physicians.

Along with the expansion, the school is also receiving funding for tuition waivers directed to students who want to serve their community and address shortage areas like primary care. It also has the Community Health Initiative to address the health needs of the surrounding community.

“I am very impressed with my school and my classmates,” said Luke Wohlford, a second-year medical student from Tucson. “Our school has a very centralized way to help.”

Wohlford volunteers at The Wesley Community and Health Center as part of the Community Health Initiative.

In 2018, Arizona ranked 40th out of the 50 states in total number of active primary care physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ workforce profile. The state is only meeting 42 percent of its need which extends through every county in the state, with rural populations feeling the impact the most.

Phoenix is the country’s fastest-growing city. As the young state develops, some attribute its lack of physicians to growing pains.

“It’s the growth of a state and the growth of a need,” Fogerty said.

The University of Arizona’s campus in Tucson was the first allopathic medical school–an M.D.-granting institution– in the state when it was founded in 1967.

With the forthcoming development of Creighton University, the Phoenix area will have three allopathic medical schools. There are also two schools of osteopathic medicine, a practice that emphasizes overall wellness through health education and preventative measures. Graduates receive the title D.O., rather than M.D.

A.T. Still School of Osteopathic Medicine in Mesa announced an expansion in its class sizes earlier this year.

Still, there are few places for medical students in Arizona to turn for the next step in their medical education, fellowships and residencies.

Expanding residency opportunities is an important part of addressing the shortage, said Pete Wertheim, executive director of the Arizona Osteopathic Medical Association.

Studies show that most new physicians stay and practice in the states where they were trained. A study published in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education showed that of a sample of medical students in Michigan, nearly 80 percent of those who completed both medical school and their residency program practiced in Michigan afterward.

Primary care physician shortages have a cumulative effect on the entire health care system, said Wertheim.

Some of these effects include delays in care, which can contribute to the development of serious preventable conditions for some patients. The shortage also leads to a higher volume of patients for primary care physicians, which pressures the doctors and ultimately contributes to burnout, said Wertheim.

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