Can Medical School Be Shortened and Made Cheaper?

In the United States, medical school is a major commitment. After 13 years in K-12 education, a doctor-to-be must first complete a 4-year Bachelor's degree. Then, once admitted to medical school, it takes another four years — for a total of 21 years of formal education, the last 8 of which can be, depending on the institution, incredibly expensive.

Is it possible to make the path to becoming a doctor both shorter and less expensive?

New York University and other institutions with medical school programs think it's possible to reduce the last stage of medical education from four years to three, resulting in jumping into practice sooner without compromising training, but also saving up to $50,000.

NYU's plan is to streamline curriculum and clinical training, as well as taking advantage of summer months that currently are used suboptimally. As Anemona Hartocollis writes in the New York Times, NYU is confident, but schools are easing into 3-year programs slowly:

At this point, the effort involves a small number of students at three medical schools: about 16 incoming students at N.Y.U., or about 10 percent of next year's entering class; 9 at Texas Tech Health Science Center School of Medicine; and even fewer, for now, at Mercer University School of Medicine's campus in Savannah, Ga. A similar trial at Louisiana State University has been delayed because of budget constraints.

The economics of medical education play a role, too, as the savings of foregoing a fourth year could translate to a shift in practice areas. By reducing student debt — which averages roughly $150,000 by the end of the medical path — administrators think students will be more apt to choose less-lucrative fields like pediatrics instead of going for higher-paying fields. In short, the theory is that less debt will allow them to pursue their passions without weighting financial considerations so strongly.

Some critics think that reducing the traditional 4-year medical education will deprive students of time they need to get to know their sub-fields, while others are worried that compressing four years into three will result in burnout:

"The downside is that you are really tired," said Dr. Dan Hunt, co-secretary of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the accrediting agency for medical schools in the United States and Canada.

Potential roadblocks include varying opinions on the value of a shortened program — will hospitals see a 3-year graduate the same as a 4-year graduate? And will it affect professional standards nationwide?

Hartocollis reports that in 1960's and 1970's, similar experiments were trialed to address a shortage of physicians. The results both warned and encouraged: Professors were reluctant and generally opposed to the plan, but students who went through 3-year programs performed as well on tests as their 4-year peers.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.
12 26, 2012
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