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Greenville Business Magazine

Medical Schools See ‘Unprecedented’ Increase In Applicants

By Liv Osby

Danielle Colbrunn wanted to be a doctor since she was a little girl.

But if she ever had any doubts, the coronavirus pandemic reassured her that she’d made the right decision.

“The pandemic cemented my choice,” the 22-year-old incoming MUSC College of Medicine student said.

“Just seeing the news coverage of it, I’ve been inspired myself,” she told Greenville Business Magazine. “And if this wasn’t something I had been planning on for a long time, I would have been inspired to join the medical field.”

Colbrunn isn’t alone.

Nationwide, the number of students applying to medical schools this year is up 18 percent over 2020, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“This large of an increase is unprecedented,” said Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs at AAMC, noting the average increase over the past two years was 2.5 percent.

“We can’t say for sure why so many more students have applied this year,” he added. “Some students may have had more time for applications and preparing for the MCAT exam after their college courses went online. Some may have decided to apply this year rather than waiting until after they could gain a year or two of work experience due to the job market.”

But, he added, others may have been motivated by seeing heroic doctors caring for patients on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.

That phenomenon has been dubbed the Fauci Effect, named for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose presence has been so prominent during the pandemic.

“The call to serve popularly referred to as the Fauci Effect since the start of the pandemic has taken health professionals by surprise,” said Charlotte Kerr, director of admissions for the MUSC College of Medicine, which saw a surge in applications of nearly 18 percent among South Carolina residents.

“The sheer visible heroism of front-line workers on the news feed made an impact on many,” she said.

Many new medical students say that while they may have had medical school on their minds all along, the pandemic changed their time table, she said.

And it’s not just medical schools.

Applications to entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs were up almost 6 percent in 2020 over 2019, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Clemson University’s School of Nursing reports a 42.7 percent increase in applications to its baccalaureate nursing program over 2020.

“I am sure … the media exposure the nursing profession has had over the course of the pandemic contributes to the increased desire to be part of the profession. There were many stories that were very compelling,” said professor John J. Whitcomb.

“In talking with current students, the pandemic put a different dynamic on what nursing is all about and the impact that nursing has within health care,” he added. “I think the news really brought forth what nurses do.”

And that may have influenced some people to want to be nurses so they can make an impact, he said.

The University of South Carolina College of Nursing saw an increase in applications of 10 percent over 2020, said Dr. Karen Worthy, assistant dean for undergraduate studies.

“Looking at 2021 enrollment, that number has definitely increased because people have a desire to make a difference during the life-changing situation of a pandemic,” she said.

“The media has brought to light just how important all health care providers are, but especially how important nurses are. (Students) saw an increase in … workers’ personal accounts, which increased their interest in nursing,” she said. “We are on the front lines of providing care … and that increased visibility has opened potential applicants’ eyes to what it means. They want a career they love, where they are able to help and care for others, especially during the pandemic, and nurses have been held as heroes.”

Enrollment at the University of South Carolina Upstate Mary Black School of Nursing is up as well, but just by 1 percent, said instructor Lindsay Grainger.

“The younger generation is seeing … problems and wants to make the world a better place,” she said. “And a lot of students have been impacted. They’ve been alongside somebody as they had to access health care in the past year, which also motivates people to enter nursing.”

While applications are fairly consistent with previous years at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, according to Dr. Julie M. Linton, assistant dean for admissions and clinical associate professor of pediatrics, she said she expects that to change.

“I don’t know that we’ll see the Fauci Effect this admission cycle,” she said. “A medical school application takes a lot of preparation. I expect we will see a dramatic increase between this year and next year.”

However, she said that many students further confirmed their decision to apply to medical school because of the pandemic.

Linton added that there’s been an increase in the number of applicants who’ve experienced adversity, with those who qualify for financial assistance nearly doubling.

“We have a significant percentage whose parents lost their employment during the pandemic who were sharing some of their own earnings to support their families while trying to apply for medical school,” she said. “And a number of applicants who’ve lost family members to Covid during the pandemic. Many of these students have been so inspiring.”

The number of applicants from underrepresented minorities also increased, she said.

AAMC also reported growth in the number of applications from students in underrepresented racial and ethnic groups – up more than 18 percent overall nationally.

While the increase in interest in both health professions is good news, the bad news is that medical and nursing schools generally can’t take any more students, even as the country is embroiled in a lingering shortage of doctors and nurses.

Class size is limited by a variety of factors including physical space, too few clinical training slots and a shortage of faculty.

Kerr calls the situation ‘bittersweet.”

“It’s wonderful to see the surge in interest, but it has given us a tough hand for the admissions committee,” she said. “There is a shortage of residency positions for the number of graduates. It’s an issue that all medical institutions are facing across the country. MUSC continues to be supportive of every effort to expand residency positions so we can finally put a dent in this physician shortage that’s affecting everyone nationally.”

Worthy said that more nurses with masters and doctorate degrees need to be recruited as senior faculty looks to retirement.

“We cannot take additional students because of the limited clinical spaces and because of limited faculty,” she said. “It’s an age-old question. Who’s going to teach the new nurses?”

Whitcomb noted that Clemson had 2,000 applicants last year but can only take 176 freshmen.

Ironically, Grainger said, working nurses may not have time to study for an advanced degree, especially during the pandemic when they’re working extra hours on top of personal obligations like teaching their children.

“We absolutely need more faculty members,” she said. “We can only increase enrollment so much because we need faculty. Longer term we will have to push to increase nursing faculty resources.”

Colbrunn was a Clemson student studying in Florence, Italy, when the pandemic hit. Like other students at the time, she was sent home as the streets emptied and hospitals filled to overflowing.

All the summer research programs she’d applied to had been canceled, so she took the summer off and did grocery shopping for her family.

Meanwhile, she saw the many stories of heroic doctors putting their own lives on the line as they cared for Covid patients struggling to breathe.

“It definitely inspired me to want to be a better physician and made me excited to join that community,” she said. “It is scary. But medical professionals are doing it for the greater good, selflessly. They’re doing what they feel they should.”

Jasmine Richards, another incoming MUSC medical student, said the pandemic opened her eyes to doctors’ heroism, and increased her desire to pursue medicine as well.

“I saw doctors crying on TV because of how the disease affected many of their patients,” said the 28-year-old Charleston woman. “I knew I’d made the right decision.”

Dr. David Blumenthal, president of The Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank that works to improve health care access and quality, said he expects to see a surge in medical and nursing school applications because of the respect that health care professionals have earned during the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been a reminder to young people of how health care (providers) are caring professionals that make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. “That image was somewhat undermined by the rising cost of care and stories about … medicine as a business rather than a calling.”