Context: Physician-scientists play a unique and critical role in medical research. Nonetheless, a number of trends followed during the 1980s and 1990s revealed that this career pathway was in serious jeopardy. Physician-scientists were declining in number and were getting older. A variety of factors were thought to contribute to this problem, including increasing indebtedness of medical school graduates caused by rapidly rising medical school tuition costs.
Objective: To evaluate the impact of recently initiated programs from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and several not-for-profit institutions designed to revitalize the physician-scientist career pipeline.
Design: We assessed recent trends in the physician-scientist career pipeline using data obtained from the NIH, the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and other sources.
Main outcome measures: Total numbers of physicians performing research, grant application numbers and success rates for MDs, MD-PhDs, and PhDs at various stages in their careers, interest in research among medical students, medical school tuitions and postgraduate salaries, numbers and composition of applicants for NIH loan repayment programs, and gender distribution of young physician-scientists.
Results: The number of physician-scientists in the United States has been in a steady state for the past decade, but funded physician-scientists are significantly older than they were 2 decades ago. However, the study of early career markers over the past 7 to 10 years has demonstrated increasing interest in research careers by medical students, steady growth of the MD-PhD pool, and a new burst of activity in the "late bloomer" pool of MDs (individuals who choose research careers in medical school or in residency training), fueled by loan repayment programs that were created by the NIH in 2002. Several recent trends for more established physician-scientists have also suggested improvement.
Conclusions: Although it is too early to assess the impact of these indicators on the long-term career pathway, the recent growth in activity in the physician-scientist career pipeline is an encouraging development. Continued funding of these new programs, coupled with sustained support for physician-scientists committed to the pathway, will be required to maintain these positive trends.