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'Silver lining' of 2020: Medical and nursing schools see increase in applications

As the world increasingly watches nurses, doctors and public health officials grapple with COVID-19, younger generations feel inspired to join their ranks.
NPR attributed the increases in admissions to the “Fauci effect,” named after Dr. Anthony Fauci, who calmly guides the country through the pandemic.
NPR attributed the increases in admissions to the “Fauci effect,” named after Dr. Anthony Fauci, who calmly guides the country through the pandemic.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Over the past year, Americans have watched doctors, nurses, public health officials and researchers take center stage as they have treated patients with COVID-19 and helped Americans navigate the crisis. While lauded as heroic for their efforts, many health care workers have candidly admitted how tough it is to be on the frontlines grappling with such a terrible illness.

Educators wondered what impact the pandemic might have on applications to nursing, medical and science schools. It turns out, COVID-19 has not stopped anyone from pursuing medical careers. In fact, it might be encouraging more people to apply.

“There were some initial concerns that the pandemic might negatively affect enrollment in schools of nursing,” Susan Bakewell-Sachs, board chair for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and vice president for nursing affairs at Oregon Health & Science University. “But what we are hearing generally is that schools are meeting their enrollment targets and that the demand for nursing education remains very strong.”

Why applications are increasing

According to Google, “how to become a nurse” was one of its most popular search terms this year and Bakewell-Sachs says nationally nursing schools are seeing a 6% increase in applications. The Association of American Medical Colleges says applications to medical school is up by 18% this year. NPR attributed the increases to the “Fauci effect,” named after Dr. Anthony Fauci, who calmly guides the country through the pandemic. Though, some say that an increased interest in medicine has more to do than with just Fauci.

“Medical school applications that our school received are up 20% this year, though I don’t know if it’s from Dr. Fauci,” Dr. Beth Piraino, the associate dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine told TODAY. “Students have planned to go to medical school. You have requirements. You have to have so many biology classes, so many chemistry classes and it takes years to fulfill the requirements.”

Dr. Demicha Rankin, associate dean of admissions in the Ohio State University College of Medicine, said that medical school received more than 8,000 applications, higher than in the past. She believes some of the increasing interest in medical school can be attributed to growing awareness of systemic racism and students’ desires to address such inequities through medicine.

“It is not just the viral pandemic but also is the awakening of the dedication to addressing racism has also been a motivation for many to try to bring equitable care to their own community,” she told TODAY. “I also think students are motivated by seeing the dedication and they simply have a desire to join a profession that is being celebrated.”

With the pandemic, health care workers are increasingly visible, giving potential students a better idea of what’s in store for them. Experts feel thrilled that people see the hardworking doctors, nurses and scientists and want to join their ranks even when they know they might face challenges like the pandemic presented.

“It’s really quite reassuring, and one of the silver linings of this pandemic, that we have a new generation truly inspired to enter health care for altruistic reasons,” Dr. Neha Vapiwala, associate dean of admissions and a professor of radiology oncology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, told TODAY. She said they’ve noticed more than a 20% increase in applications this year compared to last. “Many of them may have already had aspirations for a career in health care, but the pandemic cancelled their original plans for 2020 and potentially accelerated their plans to apply.”

But logistics might also account for the increase in medical school and fellowship applications. This year all the interviews are virtual, which means students do not have to pay for in-person travel costs associated with interviews.

It’s really quite reassuring, and one of the silver linings of this pandemic, that we have a new generation truly inspired to enter health care for altruistic reasons.”

Dr. Neha Vapiwala

“People are able to interview more cheaply and much easier than before because they could just apply and accept an interview,” Dr. John Flaherty, professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who directs the infectious disease fellowship, which also saw an increase in interested potential trainees. “That increases the number of applications as well.”

Piraino at the University of Pittsburgh said she thinks that because students can easily do more online interviews, they’re just applying to more schools. So it might not be a huge increase in the number of people applying as much as each potential student is applying to more schools.

“Now applicants don't have to pay to travel to interview, so they could easily interview at 20 places whereas before they may have had to restrict it,” she said.

More applications doesn’t mean more doctors and nurses

While nursing school applications have been increasing for the past 15 years, Bakewell-Sachs said, sometimes there are more applications than there are positions.

“We have had more qualified applicants than seats, if you will, in nursing programs for a number of years,” she said. “There is an education capacity issue.” Julie Sochalski, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Pennsylvania nursing school, also saw an increase in students interested in nursing careers both from undergraduate and graduate level students. She said that she hopes that potential students won’t be discouraged.

“There are strong programs across the country and even in our regional area, strong, excellent programs, including ours,” she told TODAY. “I have every faith that you can absolutely find a program.”

The medical school deans say the number of students they can accept is rigidly set. But if a potential student doesn’t get in this year, there are certain things they can do to improve their application for a following year.

“It is not uncommon for a lot of our applicants to do gap years,” Vapiwala from Perelman School of Medicine said. “Do you need more clinical exposure through shadowing physicians? Have you been engaged in community service? Are your letters of recommendation from individuals who truly know you and can speak to your defining characteristics? The advice I would have is to do some self-reflection and analysis but also get external objective feedback on what you can improve.”