Thursday, March 14, 2019

Nonselective full-tuition scholarships don't produce more primary care physicians

Last August, I wrote about NYU School of Medicine's decision to award full tuition scholarships to all current and future medical students, and my skepticism that this generous policy would achieve my alma mater's stated goals of recruiting a more socioeconomically diverse student body and sending more graduates into primary care fields. I was not the only person to gently criticize NYU's approach to these important issues; a few days later, Kaiser Health News editor and former emergency medicine physician Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that "instead of making medical school free for everyone, NYU - and all medical schools - should waive tuition only for those students who commit to work where they are needed most." As an example, she pointed to selective scholarships awarded by NYU's law school each year to 20 students who commit to careers in low-wage public service. Dr. Rosenthal also argued that since academic medical centers receive billions of dollars in public funds to train new doctors and don't pay taxes due to their nonprofit status, "Every academic medical center should see training the medical work force America needs not as charity but as an obligation, a 'community benefit' of the highest order."

As for increasing diversity, another laudable goal, Dr. Billy Thomas wrote in a JAMA Viewpoint:

If medical school admissions processes continue to be weighted toward metrics [e.g., GPAs, MCAT scores] and the number of minority, disadvantaged, and marginalized applicants remains stagnant, attempts to diversify the health care workforce will fall far short, despite reduced or free tuition. ... The NYU program may increase diversity at NYU, but taken in context with the stagnant national applicant pool, the increased enrollment at NYU may result in a “zero sum effect” on the national health care workforce as it relates to diversity and, by extrapolation, have no significant effect on our efforts to reduce health disparities and improve population health.

When I interviewed prospective Georgetown medical students this year, NYU usually came up in conversation, from the medical diploma hanging on my wall, if nothing else. Of course they had all applied to NYU, and if accepted, they'd most likely attend, no matter how much they loved Georgetown or Hopkins or Harvard or anywhere else without free tuition. Indeed, total applications increased by almost 50 percent, and applications from underrepresented groups more than doubled.

Another problem: according to an analysis of public data on medical school endowments, enrollment, and tuition expenses by two students at Mount Sinai (which had a brief but unsuccessful merger with NYU in the late 1990s), only 20 of 141 U.S. medical schools are financially positioned to afford going tuition-free for all students. Notably, even NYU shrunk its class size by at least a third from its size at the time of my graduation, presumably to lower the cost of providing every student with a scholarship. Like NYU, Harvard, which unsurprisingly tops the list of wealthy schools, doesn't even have a family medicine department, where establishing one would be an investment more likely to pay off for primary care than simply making school free with no service requirement.

Meanwhile, Dr. Bich-May Nguyen, a family physician with whom I've previously collaborated, just published a report in Family Medicine of a survey of 74 physicians who graduated from two BS/MD programs in Texas from 2003 through 2013 that provided full scholarships for college and medical school. 18 of these physicians went into primary care, which is about average for medical students nationally. Dr. Nguyen and her coauthor noted that the motivations for these physicians' specialty choice were similar to those from surveys of physicians who only received partial or no tuition assistance:

People interested in primary care were also interested in serving underserved or minority populations, health promotion, patient continuity, and patient advocacy. ... The second theme was found in statements supporting high income potential, prestige among colleagues, inpatient hospital care, and quick results from interventions. ... Additionally, the respondents most interested in high incomes did not enter primary care.

Ultimately, there are far less expensive solutions to the problems that NYU was supposedly trying to address by waiving medical school tuition. Want a more diverse student body? Admit more minority and low-income students. Want more students to go into family medicine and primary care? Establish and support departments in those fields, and admit more of the types of students who tend to pursue primary care. They won't necessarily have the highest GPAs or MCAT scores or the social advantages bestowed by wealthy parents (and potential future donors), but as the recent college admissions scandal showed, those things are overrated anyway.