Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine plans to provide free tuition to students who agree to practice primary care after residency at its affiliate health system Geisinger Health, it announced Wednesday.
The Danville, Pa.-based integrated delivery system hopes the offering, which will cost Geisinger an estimated $10 million per year, will help address the primary care shortage it faces, which is similar to the national trend. The health system expects it will have a shortage of 309 family medicine doctors by 2022. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a national shortage of between 21,100 and 55,200 family medicine doctors by 2032.
"Primary care is not the only area in which we have a workforce need but it's so tremendously important," said Dr. Steven Scheinman, dean of the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. "If your emphasis is more about managing disease and promoting health, primary care is the nexus."
Offering free tuition also removes concerns about medical debt from the equation, Scheinman said, which can influence a student's decision when deciding what specialty to pursue. Primary care is one of the lowest paid medical specialties compared to other fields like surgery. The average debt a medical student faces after graduation is about $200,000.
Other medical schools nationally have made attempts to encourage more students to pursue primary care, but Geisinger is the first he's aware of to pay for the tuition in full with the condition the students return to practice, according to Scheinman. Medical schools, like Texas Tech University, are attempting to address the primary care shortage by offering an option for students to complete medical school in three years instead of the traditional four if they pursue family medicine. The offering is appealing for students because it decreases their education debt by removing a full year of school. There are also loan forgiveness programs for physicians who practice primary care in medically underserved areas.
At Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, free tuition will be available to 40 of the 115 students in each class as part of a competitive application process. Students will be selected based on financial need, diversity, academic merit, their likelihood of staying in the area and passion for primary care.
The students must agree to practice at Geisinger for at least four years after residency. "We are hoping they'll stay beyond" the four years, Scheinman said. Geisinger has a robust primary care practice with 56 family medicine practices along with 13 hospitals. It also treats patients in rural areas.
Geisinger is paying for the program through its own budget, Scheinman said. Geisinger reported an operating income of $183.9 million on revenue of $6.54 billion in 2018, up from $159.8 million of operating income on $6 billion of revenue in 2017.
While Geisinger expects this to be a long-term offering, Scheinman said "it's possible over time as needs change, as the workforce changes, we may modify the program."
The Geisinger medical school is the latest to offer free tuition to its students although with more narrow stipulations than its counterparts. In August 2018, NYU Robert I. Grossman School of Medicine became the first major medical school to provide free education to all students regardless of financial merit. Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine, which will open next summer in Pasadena, Calif., followed suit in February with a similar offering for its first five classes.
Right now, about 25% of the students who have graduated from Geisinger Commonwealth pursue residencies in primary care. The school is only 10 years old and was acquired by Geisinger Health in 2016.
Students currently in their first and second years at Geisinger can apply for the offering and will know if they received the scholarship in January. Incoming students can begin applying for the offering.