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Maine Medical, Nursing Programs See Surge Of Applicants 'Answering The Call'

Carlos Osorio
Associated Press file
In this Friday, April 24, 2020 photo, Wayne State University medical school students Lucia Luna-Wong, left and Michael Moentmann work in a COVID-19 testing center in Detroit.

Slumping college application figures this year suggest that more students are skipping or delaying their postsecondary education because of the pandemic. But there’s at least one course of study that drawing significant interest — applications to medical and nursing schools are up.

Dr. Jane Carreiro, dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of New England, says she was expecting a modest uptick in applications to the school’s July 2021 medical program. But as they started to arrive, she was taken by surprise.

“We have seen an almost 50% increase in completed applications,” she says. “For medical school, you have to go through a national, standardized application system and there are multiple levels to the applications. So, a completed application means somebody has gone through all three or four levels of what they have to do.”

In other words, these students are serious about getting in. That could be good for Maine, where the average age of a physician is 52 and many are expected to age out of the workforce in 10 or 15 years.

But Carreiro cautions that the school is still only accredited to handle a certain number of students.

“Even though we have more applications, we actually can’t take more students. What we have to do is try to take students who are going to make a commitment back to Maine,” she says.

The strong interest in medicine is being seen all over the country. It could be the result of something called The Fauci Effect.

It’s been a high-profile year for public health figures such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been seen by some as a voice of reason in a highly politicized crisis.

In Maine, CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah has been a frequent voice in the media. He was even honored with his own chocolate bar by a confectioner in Freeport.

“You know, we are encouraged to see that there’s an increased interest in medicine,” says Dr. Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs with the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Young says applications to medical programs are up by about 18%, compared with less than 2% the year before. He says many of this year’s hopefuls may have simply accelerated their plans to apply.

“We think that at some level, those applicants that had been preparing, maybe they have really viewed the heroic efforts of our frontline health care workers, and they may have been even more motivated to really complete their application sooner rather than later,” he says.

Another factor, Young says, is that with more people studying from home, grounded from jobs and having no social life, medical track students may have had a lot more time to get their applications completed and filed.

At Husson University in Bangor, applications for the school’s spring nursing programs, both graduate and undergraduate, are double what they were a year ago. Admissions Director Melissa Rosenberg says she believes it’s more than just a matter of students having more time to apply.

“We are seeing essays that are coming in with the applications that are stating that they want to give back to their community, or that they’ve been impacted by COVID,” she says.

Rosenberg says more than three quarters of applications are from in the state, with many of the prospects indicating that they want to stay and serve their own communities in Maine after graduation.

That desire to “give back” and “answer the call” is particularly strong with one demographic, says Karen Pardue, dean of the Westbrook College of Health Professions. That’s students in their 30s and 40s who are perhaps retraining and seeking a different career path.

Pardue says some younger “traditional” age students actually dropped out of the nursing track when the pandemic hit this year because of the danger posed by the virus. But for others, especially those in the accelerated nursing program, it was a rallying cry.

“In that population, Absolutely. COVID has been a motivator and a driving force, we read in the essays, ‘I want to do something that makes a difference. This is bigger than me, and this is making a difference.’ Absolutely the pandemic has had an impact on that,” she says.

Young says the economy could be another factor that’s driving the medical career trend. Those who had planned to work for a while before entering the health care field may not have had a job to go to, so they decided to go back to school. And he says medical careers may be viewed as more stable in a year where other industries have been upended.