Why Fewer Students Want to Play Doctor

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Chalk up another victim of dot-com mania: wanna-be doctors. For the second straight year, applications to U.S. medical schools are down, a 4.7 percent drop from 1997 to 1998. That makes a 12 percent decline in since 1996, when applications were at an all-time high. The diagnosis? A strong economy gives bright students a wider range of options and less of a perceived need to seek out a "safe" profession (medical schools experienced similar fluctuations in the late '70s and early '80s during flush economic periods). Add to that the fact that some doctors report less-than-perfect job satisfaction under the HMO ledger, and suddenly life as "my son the doctor" doesn't seem so appealing.

So are we going to run out of doctors? Not for a long while — unless you live in a rural area. Though applications to study medicine are down, med schools are still getting several requests for each place on their rosters — and still turning out the same number of graduates. In fact, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported last year that one quarter of new doctors reported difficulties finding a job after their internships were completed. Much of the reason for this is that most doctors want to live in or near big cities, not in the vast rural sections of the country that are chronically short on good medical care. So the real problem is not applications but distribution. You can lead a kid to med school, but you can't make him practice in South Texas.