Is coronavirus behind soaring interest in college health programs?

Applications at medical schools nationwide are up 18%, compared to an increase of less than 3% annually in the last decade.

MEDICAL PERSONNEL talk during rounds at the Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia in November 2019. (photo credit: MONICA HERNDON/THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/TNS)
MEDICAL PERSONNEL talk during rounds at the Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia in November 2019.
Vanessa Oppong thought about delaying her pursuit of a master’s degree in public health at Temple University, given that classes were moved online this fall as a result of the pandemic.
Then, as the devastating effects of the coronavirus raged around her, she reconsidered.
“I felt in a way called to continue my education,” Oppong, 23, of Woodbridge, Virginia, said. “There’s no better time than right now.”
Apparently, she’s far from alone in her thinking.
Temple saw a 120% increase in first-year students enrolled in its master’s of public health program this year, from 69 to 152, with interest particularly high in epidemiology and behavioral sciences, said Laura A. Siminoff, dean of the College of Public Health. Applications and deposits are up for the spring semester and the fall is looking good, too, she said.
“The pandemic has really shown a spotlight on public health, what it is and why it’s important,” she said. “I’m so excited that young people are answering the call.”
It’s not just public health that’s seeing the spike. Temple and other area colleges say interest in medical school, nursing and other health-related fields are also soaring. Applications are up by double-digit percentages to medical schools, a rate of increase not seen in recent years.
That mirrors a national trend. Applications at medical schools nationwide are up 18%, compared to an increase of less than 3% annually in the last decade, said Geoffrey Young, senior director for student affairs and programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges. Osteopathic medical schools also have reported larger numbers.
“In many ways, we think this increase is unprecedented,” Young said.
Entry to medical school has always been extremely competitive, and the higher numbers mean it will be even more competitive this year.
Not all of the increase is because of the pandemic, officials say. In times of economic downturn, enrollments tend to rise as students who may have taken a few years off to work seek to continue their education instead. More students are applying to a larger number of schools. And numbers had been on the rise anyway, with a shortage of physicians projected by 2032.
But the fact that Anthony Fauci, the benevolent doctor who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become a household name and that everyone’s life has been altered by the coronavirus have certainly stoked interest.
“There is a sense of respect and in some cases newfound respect for healthcare workers, for scientists, for this idea that during a pandemic, when so many other aspects of life were unavailable or deemed nonessential, that the one source of inspiration was the role of healthcare workers, of doctors and nurses on the frontlines helping people get through this frightening time,” said Neha Vapiwala, associate dean of admissions for the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and a professor of radiation oncology.
Penn received 7,303 applications to its medical school for about 150 spots, a 20% jump.
Prospective students noted on applications the effect the pandemic had on their decision to apply, Penn said. Some said they were inspired by frontline workers and wanted to make a difference. Some wrote that they were personally affected by COVID-19, suffering illness within the family or loss of someone close. Others said they wanted to do research to help prevent and combat disease. And some noted that other employment opportunities were not available or as appealing because of the pandemic.
OLIVIA PALMER had already applied to Penn’s medical school when the pandemic hit. Palmer, of Cheshire, Connecticut, just completed her first semester this fall.
But the coronavirus, she said, greatly affected her outlook on her career path. When it started, she was working at a nonprofit in Boston that helps those experiencing homelessness with healthcare, and witnessed how people got the virus because they were crammed into under-resourced shelters without access to adequate care, she said.
“It really showed me that thinking about health equity needs to be a mainstay and center point of my future career as a physician,” said Palmer, 23, who got her undergraduate degree at Boston College.
John M. Daly, interim dean of Temple’s medical school and professor of surgery, said he also saw college students greatly impacted as they watched rising hospitalizations from COVID and wanted to help.
“What they can do is apply to medical school,” he said.
And many did. Temple is thousands of applications ahead of previous years, he said.
Applications to Drexel’s medical school are up by 22%, said Niki Gianakaris, a spokesperson.
Other health fields are attracting more students, too. Applications to Penn’s nursing school are up 9%, a larger jump than usual, Penn said. Drexel reported a 15% uptick in undergraduate applications to its nursing and health professions school and a 17% jump in graduate applications.
Drexel said undergraduate applications to its public health school are up 47% and its graduate applications by more than that. The coronavirus, said public health school dean Ana Diez Roux, has highlighted and magnified a larger set of health problems, including inequities in chronic diseases across neighborhoods.
Students in high school may not have known what a career in public health meant before, she said. They do now.
Hannah McKinney, 22, of Bucks County, saw that transformation firsthand. When she first declared public health as her undergraduate major at Temple a couple years ago, friends asked, “What are you even going to do with that,” she recalled.
“Now everyone is like, oh my gosh, it’s this high and mighty field and discipline,” she said. “It’s the center of every conversation.”
McKinney, who got her bachelor’s in May, is pursuing her master’s in public health, also at Temple. She’s focusing on epidemiology, a decision influenced by the pandemic. She was in a research methods course last spring when her professor, a member of Temple’s coronavirus task force, gave students a firsthand look at what was happening.
“Her involvement made me think this is something I could do,” she said.
The pandemic also has caused colleges to plan or make changes in curriculum and programs.
Temple’s medical school will expand education in public health and microbiology and immunology, Daly, the dean, said. Its public health school will place greater focus on public health communications, epidemiology and infectious disease, said Siminoff, its dean.
“The idea is to bring in more faculty who cannot only teach in these areas but do research in these areas,” she said.
Drexel recently announced it was establishing a center on racism and health to look at ways to eliminate disparities that unfairly affect health in communities of color. The university also plans to start a new program in economics and public health, part of a larger effort to pair economics as a second major with other subjects. Public health probably would have been chosen anyway, said Mark Stehr, professor and director of Drexel’s school of economics.
“The pandemic certainly, I think, gave it a push,” he said.