Texas Tech University's medical school has announced plans for a medical degree that students will be able to complete in three years, rather than the usual four.
The accelerated program, one of the first since a few medical schools tried the concept in the 1970s, is aimed at making it easier and more affordable for students to become family doctors.
In addition to shaving a year off their studies, it will give students at the university's Health Sciences Center School of Medicine a $13,000 scholarship to cover tuition and fees during their first year.
West Texas, like much of the nation, faces a shortage of primary-care physicians, and medical educators say one of the reasons is that medical students graduate with debts averaging $156,000 and earn less in primary care than they would in other specialties.
"Texas Tech is committed to taking the first steps in changing how medical schools attract and educate future family-medicine doctors," Steven L. Berk, dean of the Texas medical school, said in a written statement on Wednesday. The program, which has been approved by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the accreditor for M.D. programs, will begin in the fall of 2011.
Advocates of a three-year degree say that much of the fourth year is spent on electives that are geared toward specialties other than primary care. Critics counter that compressing an already packed curriculum would compromise the quality of a medical degree.
A few medical schools offered three-year degrees in the 1970s, but they were discontinued, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. An association official said, in an interview last year, that students and faculty members found the programs too grueling because they required skipping summer vacations and working three straight years.
The idea has gained steam in recent years, though, as student debts have soared and the popularity of family medicine among practitioners has plummeted. The field remains popular among graduates of osteopathic schools, which emphasize holistic practices and primary care. At least one such school, the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, currently offers a three-year degree in primary-care medicine.
Two Canadian medical schools, at McMaster University and the University of Calgary, also offer three-year degrees.
The sweeping health-care legislation that President Obama signed into law this week is expected to make 32 million more people eligible for insurance coverage and put more strains on the nation's primary-care work force.
In a promising sign last week, the number of U.S. medical-school graduates opting for primary-care residencies grew. It was the first such increase after a decade of declines. Some medical educators speculated that was partly attributable to the renewed attention to primary care during the health-care debate and the financial incentives for family practitioners that were included in the new health law.