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A recent study conducted by Kaplan Test Prep revealed less than a third of current pre-med students plan on becoming primary care physicians, whereas the remaining two-thirds intend on becoming specialists. This information comes at a time when America is facing a shortage of primary care doctors.

The survey, which polled 543 pre-med students earlier this year during January and February, showed that only 32 percent of respondents plan on becoming primary care doctors after earning their medical doctorate. The other 68 percent plan on becoming specialists, such as cardiologists, neurologists, etc.

“Of the 68 percent who plan to become specialists, 86 percent say the main reason is ‘academic/personal interest,” said Owen Farcy, director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep. “Only two percent cited ‘better salary,’ although specialists are known to make significantly more than primary care physicians.”

This news reflects the growing shortage of primary care physicians. While only 9,000 today, the gulf is expected to widen to 65,000 doctors over the course of the next two decades.

“If you have ever wondered why you sometimes have to wait weeks or even months for an appointment with your doctor, to then only wait an hour in the waiting room, the current situation helps explain it,” Farcy said. “And it may not get better anytime soon.”

The medical education community, led by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), is responding to this dilemma by building new medical schools and expanding the capacity of current medical schools, with the intent of adding 30 percent more seats by 2015, which will result in approximately 5,000 new doctors annually. In 2015, the AAMC will be changing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to include behavioral and social sciences, advanced science concepts, and expanded critical thinking.

Another option being explored is the shortening of medical school from four to three years in length. This would allow doctors to go into practice quicker, and one year less of tuition could save students up to $50,000 in tuition and fees. Pre-med students responded positively to this possibility; 71 percent of those polled in Kaplan’s survey that they would rather attend a three-year versus four-year program.

“We’ll be tracking this trend closely over the years to come and advising students on it as more details and information become available,” Farcy said.

Government officials have responded to the doctor shortage in a number of ways. In Iowa for example, the governor proposed spending $2 million annually to pay of the student loans of up to 20 medical students who commit to working in a rural part of Iowa. In Wisconsin, the governor announced his intent to invest $7.4 million to train new doctors in parts of the state. In California, state legislators are working to allow physician assistants to treat more patients; under this plan, pharmacists and optometrists could act as primary care providers that manage certain chronic illnesses.

“Many doctors are not happy about this, though, because they see it as possibly putting patients at risks,” Farcy said

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