Well into the fourth year of the America Needs More Family Doctors: 25 X 2030 Collaborative, Match Day 2022 brought some good news: the “largest class of [incoming family medicine] residents ever,” according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). As Dr. Clif Knight, then the AAFP’s Senior Vice President for Education, wrote after the 2020 Match, it was uncertain how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect the number of fourth-year students who matched into family medicine residency programs, even as practicing family physicians were demonstrating their value to health care systems:
The increasingly prominent role of family physicians during the past few months highlights the versatility of family medicine training and competencies. Family physicians have flexed into inpatient, community outreach, and emergency coordination roles. … The future for family physicians will be promising in the postpandemic era if the opportunities to appropriately reform primary care practice, regulation, and payment are enacted swiftly and with permanence.
A recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine pointed out that stable Match rates from year to year can obscure worrisome trends in the residency selection process. For example, the proportion of U.S. MD seniors who match to their top-ranked program has decreased steadily since the mid-2000s, while the proportion who match to their fourth choice or lower has increased. During this time, the number of applications submitted per applicant increased dramatically:
Between 2007 and 2020, … the number of applications submitted per applicant doubled, with the average U.S. medical school graduate submitting 70 residency applications and the average IMG submitting 139 in 2020. The average internal medicine or general surgery residency program now receives more than 100 applications for every available position. As a consequence, programs interview and rank more applicants than they did in the past. Even though program fill rates are unchanged, there has been a steady increase in the number of applicants that programs must rank to fill each position, from 9.2 in 2002 to 15.4 in 2021. In other words, despite the stability in applicant match rates, program fill rates, and the ratio of PGY-1 positions to applicants, the residency-selection process has grown increasingly stressful, inefficient, and expensive as applicants have applied to more programs.
Delving deeper into the results of the 2022 Match reported by the AAFP provides ample reasons for pessimism. The number of U.S. MD seniors matching into Family Medicine fell from 1,623 in 2021 to 1,555 in 2022, representing only 8.4% of all matched U.S. MD seniors and at 31.5%, their lowest Family Medicine fill rate in history. (In contrast, the 30.3% fill rate of U.S. DO seniors was the highest ever, with 22.4% of all U.S. DO seniors matching to Family Medicine.) Overall, only 12.2% of U.S. medical school graduates will be entering family medicine residency programs in July, less than half of the specialty’s 25% X 2030 goal.
In a critical analysis of the past four decades of Match results, Drs. Richard Young and Sophia Tinger observed that Family Medicine interest among U.S. MD graduates has stagnated for the past 10 years, and “there are no indications in the present environment (reimbursement by specialty, legislative mandates, new strategies to increase student interest in family medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic, or anything else) to suggest that the current trends will change over the next 9 years.” Or to put it bluntly, “the 25 X 2030 Collaborative will almost certainly fail to reach its goal.”
The consequences of an inadequate U.S. primary care workforce to the future health of all Americans could be dire. In a Graham Center Policy One-Pager in the April issue of American Family Physician, Dr. Yalda Jabbarpour and colleagues examined the association of the Community Health Index (CHI; “an average score of public health preparedness, primary care physician supply rates, and the social deprivation index (a proxy for community-level factors such as housing and transportation)”) with county-level COVID-19 death rates before and after widespread vaccine availability. Counties with higher CHI scores had lower COVID-19 mortality rates overall, with the number of deaths per 100,000 individuals falling most drastically after vaccination in counties in the highest quintile of CHI scores.