The December 5, 2012 issue of JAMA is its annual “medical education” issue, and contains a number of interesting studies and commentaries for those interested in the topic. In terms of increasing the number of primary care physicians, an issue which I have often addressed, the “original contribution” is “General medicine vs. subspecialty career plans among internal medicine residents” by West and Dupras. This study discovered that only 21.5% of third-year internal medicine residents were planning careers in general medicine (which might be primary care), while 9.3% planned careers as “hospitalists” and 65.3% planned to be sub-specialists (cardiologists, gastroenterologists, pulmonologists, endocrinologists, etc.), with 4% undecided.
This is not a significantly different result from that found by Garibaldi, et al., in “Career plans for trainees in internal medicine residency programs published in 2005 in Academic Medicine, and first discussed by me in “A Quality Health System Needs More Primary Care Physicians” 4 years ago, December 11, 2008. Garibaldi’s number was 27% of 3rd (final) year residents and 19% of first years. What West and Dupras add is that only 39.5% of graduates of specifically-designated “primary care” internal medicine residencies are actually planning to become primary care physicians. Apparently all of the discussion about the need for more primary care doctors has not swayed the decisions of these residents, who, at the conclusion of their initial 3 years of training can “go either way”; the way that they are going is to subspecialization.
Commenting on this article, Mark Schwartz (“The US primary care workforce and graduate medical education policy") notes that, in contrast to internal medicine, a larger percent of pediatric residency graduates, 45%, were planning to enter primary care, which is actually a decrease because of pressures in the discipline to create more pediatric subspecialists. Only family medicine, at over 90%, remains a reliable specialty for producing primary care physicians. Schwartz notes that the Council on Graduate Medical Education (COGME) has recommended a minimum of 40% primary care for an optimally-functioning health system (increased from the 32% at the time of its 20th report, in 2010), but obviously the movement is in the opposite direction. Moreover, he talks about a 40% “rate” of entry into primary care; however, a 40% entry rate is only a sustaining percent once we are at 40% --an entry rate of 40% will take an entire generation, about 30 years, to yield a 40% primary care workforce. And, indeed, many, including many on COGME, believe that 40% is too low and the actual goal should be 50-60%. Nonetheless, it is all academic when the current rate of entry into primary care will not even replace the current under-30%.
Schwartz also looks at the fact that Medicare supports the majority of graduate medical education through two related programs, Direct Graduate Medical Education (DGME) funding, about $3B, which is to support resident salaries and teaching costs, and Indirect Medical Education (IME) funding, about $6.5B, which is intended to compensate hospitals, the primary sponsors of residency programs, for the increased costs involved in providing patient care in a training environment. Unfortunately for these hospitals (and other program sponsors), the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress on Medicare policy, has indicated that IME payments exceed the cost differential by $3.5B. There are various proposals for what to do with this money; while MedPAC advocated using it for a pay-for-performance program for GME, both Simpson-Bowles and the administration have advocated using it to pay down the national debt (i.e., chopping it). The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) wants to use it to increase the supporting number of residency positions, currently capped by the balanced budget amendment at 98,000, correctly noting that although the number of graduates from US medical schools is increasing (through class size expansion and opening new schools), this will not increase the number of physicians if the number of residency slot is constant.
Darrell Kirch, President of AAMC, avoids discussion of GME in his editorial in this issue (“Transforming admissions: the gateway to medicine”) choosing instead to comment on an article by Kevin Eva and colleagues from McMaster University in Canada  about using a technique called the multiple mini-interview (MMI) to increase the admission of students with desirable non-cognitive characteristics (i.e., those not well measured by grades and standardized examination scores) to medical school. Kirch says that “…medical schools are moving toward a broader view of medical school readiness that emphasizes the competencies applicants have demonstrated in addition to their academic credentials,” and that “This change is essential to identify future physicians with the skills and knowledge to manage illness in the 21st century.”
So what do we have. Not enough internal medicine residents entering primary care. Not enough students entering the only true primary care specialty, family medicine. Expansion of medical school classes to produce more US graduates, but no expansion of residency positions, which will largely mean US grads will replace international medical graduates (IMGs) in residency positions (which may in itself not be entirely positive, as described in yet another article in this issue ). On the front end, we have increasing recognition that characteristics other than standardized test performance are the most important for future doctors, but only tepid experiments at changing the selection process.
The AAMC could be at the center of advocating for, and in their member institutions, implementing, some solutions to these problems, but currently the solutions they have proposed are far from adequate. Students will be more interested in primary care if they are selected based on the characteristics that are associated with choosing primary care, not mainly on grades and test performance (which are often inversely associated). This is not what Dr. Kirch is advocating. They will continue to be interested in primary care careers if their faculty and overall medical school experience support and encourage them. Most medical schools do not. Increasing the number of residency positions will not increase the proportion of primary care physicians if the expansion is in all specialties, but only if it is limited to primary care. The AAMC has not backed this idea. Finally, the decision to pursue a primary care career by entering family medicine training, or by opting for primary care on completing internal medicine or pediatric training, will only be achieved if the anticipated income differential is addressed, which will require decreased income for the currently most highly paid subspecialists at least as much as increasing that of primary care doctors. The AAMC does not have a position advocating this.
A wonderful “Piece of My Mind” in this issue of JAMA, “Not born in the USA” by Vijay Rajput  addresses many of these issues, including how the increased competition for US residency slots by IMGs will drive their test scores even higher, but how these scores do not really prepare someone to be a “humanistic” physician. The strategies mentioned above, including recruiting and matriculating students concerned about people and interested in primary care and care of the underserved, supporting them through their education, offering increases in residency slots only for primary care, and reducing the income differentials for primary care, will address the problems.
Medical schools, the AAMC, and the various agencies of the federal government (especially the Center for Medicare and Medicaid services) need to fully commit to these strategies. It is time for the talk to lead to real action.
 West CP, Dupras DM, General medicine vs subspecialty career plans among internal medicine residents. JAMA. 2012 Dec 5;308(21):2241-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.47535
 Garibaldi, RA, Popkave C, Bylsma W, “Career plans for trainees in internal medicine residency programs”, Acad Med 2005 May;80(5):507-12
 Schwartz, MD. “The US primary care workforce and graduate medical education policy”. JAMA 2012 Dec5;208(21):2252-3.
 Kirch, DG. Transforming admissions: the gateway to medicine. JAMA 2012 Dec5;308(21):2250-1.
 Eva KW et al., “Association between a medical school admission process using the multiple min-interview and national licensing examination scores”. JAMA 2012; 308(21):2233-40.
 Traverso G and McMahon GT, “Residency training and international medical graduates: coming to America no more”, JAMA 2012; 308(21):2193-94.
 Rajput, V. “Not born in the USA”. JAMA 2012; 308(21):2197-98.