Medical schools across the U.S. are seeing applications jump. Could the 'Fauci effect' be the reason?

·7 min read

The medical community has been front and center ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Frontline workers have been the subject of nightly applause and regular praise and have generally been seen as a comforting presence during a time of extreme uncertainty. Now, it seems, more people want to join their ranks.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the number of students applying to enter medical school in 2021 is up 18 percent from this time last year. By comparison, the average increase over the previous 10 years was 2.5 percent. “This large of an increase is unprecedented,” Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs at AAMC, tells Yahoo Life.

Top medical schools across the country are reporting an increase in applications, representatives tells Yahoo Life. “We have seen a growth in the number of applications,” Ekaterina Pesheva, director of science communications and media relations at Harvard Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “Compared to last year, the number of completed applications submitted to Harvard Medical School this year has increased by 19 percent.”

This isn’t unique to Harvard: Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, dean of Weill Cornell Medicine, tells Yahoo that they’ve seen a 10 percent increase in medical school applications compared with last year. Dr. Jesus Vallejo, associate dean of admissions, diversity, equity and multicultural affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that the school’s applications have grown 23 percent since the last cycle.

“We received over 9,600 applications for the 102 spots in the entering class,” Dr. Rafael Rivera, associate dean for admission and financial aid at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life, noting a 4 percent increase in applications received this year.

Other increases are even more jaw-dropping. Dr. Clarence Braddock, vice dean for education at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells Yahoo Life that applications for the medical school are up 30 percent. While Braddock says that it’s “common for applications to go up a bit each year,” typical increases are usually nowhere near that number. “Probably next year will be a smaller increase, perhaps 7 to 8 percent,” he says.

And Dr. Iris C. Gibbs, associate dean of MD admissions and professor of radiation oncology at Stanford Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that the school has experienced an approximately 50 percent increase over its previous record year of applications.

Why is this happening now? It’s hard to say for sure. Some have cited the calming guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Dr. Fauci is a wonderful mentor in medicine as a goal of what to aspire to,” Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an ob-gyn and surgeon in Texas, tells Yahoo Life. “Hopefully his consistency and medical acumen will encourage others.”

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that there are “many factors” causing the increase but adds, “I would like to think it is because physicians have really been seen shining during this pandemic, which has touched everyone’s lives.”

People hold signs and cheer to show their gratitude to medical staff and frontline workers in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty Images)
People hold signs and cheer to show their gratitude to medical staff and frontline workers in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Adalja says it’s “great” if “individuals like Fauci and those taking care of COVID-19 patients on a day-to-day basis are inspiring students to consider medicine as a career.”

Even Fauci himself won’t take responsibility for the spike in medical school applications this year.

“I think it’s a lot more than the Fauci effect,” he told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell on Monday.

Instead, he pointed to “the incredible bravery of the doctors and nurses and health care providers who put themselves on the frontline every day, risking their own health and those in their families to take care of desperately ill patients,” as a reason for the increase.

“When young people who want to think about something they want to do with their lives think about that ... it’s going to be less the Fauci effect and more the COVID effect,” he said.

Some applicants also just may want to help, Gibbs says. “The general increase in applications might be explained by the desire of people to help humanity through medical service,” she says. “The prominent examples of people like Dr. Anthony Fauci and others have shown the importance of physicians and scientists to solving the most pressing issues of our time.”

Gibbs says that while she has “no specific data to support that Dr. Fauci is responsible for the increase in the number of applications,” she adds that “anecdotally, the COVID experience has reinforced the motivations toward medicine for many applicants as indicated by their personal essays."

Other would-be medical students may have been influenced by witnessing medical professionals who aren’t famous. “Some may have been motivated by seeing heroic doctors on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Young says.

Others agree, saying the increase may simply be because the medical profession has been at the center of the public’s attention. “The pandemic has really catapulted the medical profession in the eyes of the media,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. Watkins compares this renewed interest in the medical field to the increase in military enlistment after the 9/11 attacks.

While Braddock says that interest in the medical field “certainly went up because of COVID,” he also points out that some people may have simply waited to apply or applied sooner than expected, increasing the competition this year. “Some applicants who may have originally planned a year of research or other activity before applying but couldn’t due to COVID decided to go ahead and apply this year,” he says.

Young agrees. “Some students may have had more time for applications and preparing for the MCAT exam after their college courses went online,” he says.

Potential students may have found even fewer barriers to entry, Vallejo says. “Many applicants have had more time to focus on their medical school application since their undergrad courses moved online,” he says. Not only that, some schools waived course requirements and testing requirements due to COVID-19, “making it easier to apply to those schools,” and “interviewing was less of a cost burden to applicants since they were held virtually,” he points out.

And some medical schools are offering new features to lure applicants. “At UCLA, we have a new curriculum being launched and lots of excitement about that,” Braddock says. “It includes earlier entry into real-world clinical practice and a year of ‘discovery,’ where students can also pursue a master’s degree or complete a year of research.” Stanford Medicine is also offering enhanced financial support thanks to a generous donor, Gibbs says.

Choi says his school has seen more applications due to its debt-free initiative, “which expanded scholarship offerings to provide debt-free education to all medical students with demonstrated financial need. The program was first announced in September 2019 and “replaces student loans with scholarships that cover all expenses including tuition, housing and other living expenses,” he says.

While Young says there are no concrete answers now, the AAMC surveys incoming medical students each year and will have answers next year.

The ultimate result of all of these applications remains to be seen, but Watkins says he hopes it will lead to more diversity. “With more applicants, the field will likely continue to diversify and look more like the American population,” he says. Shepherd agrees. “Hopefully this can help see an increase in minorities in health care and as physicians,” she says.

Braddock makes it clear, though, that more applications doesn’t necessarily mean more doctors in the future. “Since the number of medical school spots changes very little year to year, this bump won’t increase the number of physicians in the workforce,” he says. However, he adds, it “will heighten pressure to increase med school enrollment and could drive up enrollment in schools of osteopathic medicine — DO schools — which have been increasing quite rapidly.”

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