Prescription is for Growth at Med School
By Doug Boyd
East Carolina University will admit a record number of medical students this August, and plans are to increase enrollment by more than 50 percent.
The Brody School of Medicine will welcome 76 students in August, up from 73 last year and up from 72 from 1986-2006. School officials then plan to admit 80 students within a few years.
To help meet a projected shortage in physicians, particularly primary care doctors, ECU has set a long-term goal of admitting 120 medical students with each class.
That figure is part of the “ECU Tomorrow” strategic plan university trustees adopted last year.
“We think 120 is a reasonable number for us, if we get the additional resources we will need,” said Dr. Nicholas Benson, vice dean of the Brody School of Medicine. “It’s a change that will impact everything this medical school does. We’re interested in producing doctors that are going to work in eastern North Carolina and across North Carolina.”
Additional resources will be vital. The Brody Medical Sciences Building will be “maxed out,” Benson said, when the school admits 80 students. Faculty resources and external training sites also will not support growth beyond 80 students.
UNC President Erskine Bowles has asked UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina to work together to increase the number of doctors in the state. Officials from both schools met with Bowles in December and February to discuss the need for expansion and the challenges it will bring.
ECU officials will request $2 million in planning funds at this summer’s session of the N.C. General Assembly. Among other things, that money will help pay for identifying satellite training sites where third- and fourth-year medical students would get their clinical education.
Also, a 16-member team led by Benson and Dr. Virginia Hardy, senior associate dean, is studying expansion in detail and what specific issues the university will face as it undertakes adding as many as 40 students.
Increasing the number of physicians and other health care providers has become a priority at universities across the country as people with chronic diseases are living longer and the number of elderly people increases.
As of 2006, 93 of the nation’s 126 medical schools increased or were planning to increase enrollment over 2002 levels, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Several U.S. medical schools are increasing their class size by 10 percent or more in response to the AAMC’s call for a 30 percent increase in enrollment by 2015 to address an anti-cipated national physician shortage.
North Carolina ranks 29th in the nation, with 229 physicians for every 100,000 people, according to the AAMC. The state’s ranking for primary care physicians per 100,000 people is 34th, at 80.5.
The good news is North Carolina has a young physician workforce. A fifth of its doctors are under age 40, tying the state for first in that category.
The bad news is eastern North Carolina lacks primary care physicians. According to UNC-CH, eight of the 10 counties in the state with the smallest ratio of primary care physicians for their population are in eastern North Carolina. Hyde County had no practicing physicians as of 2005.
As ECU admits more students, it will continue to focus on North Carolina residents who want to remain in North Carolina after graduation. UNC-Chapel Hill, as it increases enrollment by 70 students, will look primarily out of state, Hardy said.
“It’s an exciting time for us, a time for growth and some new opportunities, a chance to impact more lives in eastern North Carolina,” Hardy said.
With school finances tight and the school searching for a new dean, some might wonder if now is a good time to undertake such significant growth. Benson said the chance to be part of the biggest change in school history could be attractive.
“We hope it is an alluring opportunity for dean candidates,” he said.