How private vs. public medical schools affect the physician pipeline: 5 things to know

Where physicians are educated — in a public or private institution — can greatly influence their career path. As the shortage of primary care physicians grows, especially in rural and underserved areas, this physician pipeline is critical.

A recent study published in the May issue of Health Affairs maps various physician pathways to highlight the pain points in the medical education system. Here are five key takeaways.

1. Currently in the U.S. there are 129 allopathic medical schools, of which 78 are public and 51 are private. There are 30 osteopathic schools, of which six are public and 24 are private. Sixteen new medical schools have opened since 2002.

2. Most health professionals — including dieticians, dental hygienists, lab technicians, pharmacists, registered nurses and allopathic physicians — earn their degrees and certificates at a public university. More than half of all physicians graduate from public institutions, with more MDs (60.9 percent) than DOs (21 percent) graduating from public universities.

3. However, the ratio of public vs. private medical school graduates varies greatly depending on geographic region. In the Northeast, for example, 69.5 percent of physicians studied at private institutions. In the Midwest, more students are from public schools (59.1 percent public), as well as in the South (66.4 percent) and West (59.7 percent).

4. In rural areas, more physicians graduate from public universities. The 14 most rural states train 75 percent of physicians in public medical schools, and seven of the 16 new medical schools opened since 2002 opened in the South.

5. Public medical school graduates are slightly more likely (28.8 percent) than private school graduates (24.3 percent) to choose primary care specialties, according to the report. Public school graduates also left school with less debt from 2013-14 ($155,000) than private school graduates ($180,000). "Compared to private institutions, public institutions graduate slightly more physicians who pursue primary care specialties, having had a lower cost of attendance and having less educational debt than physicians who attended private institutions. Thus, site of education is a key consideration when developing strategies to meet national health workforce needs," the authors wrote.


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