When COVID-19 restrictions reduced his work schedule at the National Institutes of Health, Sam Smith decided to turn to another time-consuming job: applying to medical school.
He'd always wanted to go into medicine, but what was happening in the world had a big impact on the kind of medicine he hopes to practice. Now Smith wants to specialize in infectious diseases.
The experience of the past year "makes me think, there's probably going to be another pandemic" in the future, said Smith, 25. "So I want to be on the front lines of the next one."
Even as college and university enrollment overall has dropped this fall, Smith is part of a wave of what officials say is a record number of applicants to medical school.
The number of applicants is up 18% this year over last year, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, driven by the example of medical workers and public health figures such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"It's unprecedented," said Geoffrey Young, the AAMC's senior director for student affairs and programs, who compares it to another response to a traumatic moment in American history: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"After [Sept. 11], there was a huge increase in the number of men and women that were entering into the military," Young said. "So far in my lifetime, at least, and for as long as I've been in medical education, that's the only comparison that I could make."
Stanford University School of Medicine reports a 50% jump in the number of applications, or 11,000 applications for 90 seats. Boston University School of Medicine says applications are up 27%, to 12,024 for about 110 seats.
"That, I think, may have a lot to do with the fact that people look at Anthony Fauci, look at the doctors in their community and say, 'You know, that is amazing. This is a way for me to make a difference,'" said Kristen Goodell, associate dean of admissions at the school of medicine at BU.
Medical school admissions officers have started calling this the Fauci Effect.
It's "very flattering," Fauci said. "Probably a more realistic assessment is that, rather than the Fauci Effect, it's the effect of a physician who is trying to and hopefully succeeding in having an important impact on an individual's health, as well as on global health. So if it works to get more young individuals into medical school, go ahead and use my name. Be my guest."
Among other reasons admissions officials cite for the increase in prospective medical students is that the pandemic has given people more free time to complete the arduous application process.
"A lot of the plans they made postgrad honestly fell through," said Sahil Mehta, a practicing radiologist and founder of MedSchoolCoach, which prepares students for the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT.
When the dermatology practice where she was working as a medical assistant shut down temporarily because of COVID-19, Mary Grace Kelley had the chance to retake the MCAT and improved her score.
"This is a perfect time of no distractions," said Kelley, 23, who lives in the Boston suburbs and is applying to medical schools this year.
The deluge of applications comes as the nation faces a projected shortage of physicians.
The United States will be short 54,100 to 139,000 physicians by 2033, the AAMC estimates. More than two out of every five doctors now practicing will reach retirement age over the next 10 years.
Thirty-five percent of registered voters in a survey last year said they'd had trouble finding a doctor, up from 25% in 2015.
Medical school graduates finish with a staggering $241,560 of student loan debt, on average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, discouraging many would-be doctors.
"I do think that the debt probably scares off some people," said Goodell, who is also a former chair of the Council on Graduate Medical Education.
This year's many medical school applicants appear undeterred.
"Everyone feels some sort of responsibility," Kelley said. "There's definitely a call to arms thinking that, if there's another pandemic, it'll be up to us."
Fauci said he sees the flood of medical school applicants as a sign that people are thinking about social justice — "that you have responsibility not only to yourself, but as an integral part of society."
He said he hopes the trend will counterbalance and "maybe would even overcome the other side of the coin, which is the really somewhat stunning and disturbing fact that people have no regard at all for society, only just focusing very selfishly on themselves."
This was produced by The Hechinger Report in collaboration with GBH Boston. Additional reporting by Kirk Carapezza.
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