TAMPA — No one told Alicia Billington that the hardest part of medical school would come in the final months: Trying to land a residency gig when the number of graduates is growing faster than the number of openings.
"I thought getting into medical school was the hard part," said Billington, 30, a University of South Florida medical school senior who has also been pursing a doctoral degree.
So Billington was elated Friday when she learned she'll be doing her residency in plastic surgery at USF's program at Tampa General Hospital — her first choice. But looming over USF's celebration for Billington and the other 120 USF seniors was what some call a coming crisis in medicine.
By the end of the decade, the number of graduates from U.S. medical schools is expected to exceed the number of residency slots, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Florida, which for years has had to export its medical students to other states, ranks near the bottom in the number of residency training positions relative to its population.
This matters not only to students, but also to patients, since doctors frequently spend their careers in the area where they did their advanced training. Florida has nearly 3,900 medical students but only 3,770 residency and fellows positions.
"Can you imagine going through all this and then no residency training?" Dr. Harry van Loveren, the interim medical school dean, told students and their families gathered at Skipper's Smokehouse for National Match Day, the day when 16,399 U.S. medical students are matched to first-year residency programs.
Medicare is the biggest source of money for the required advanced training for graduates. But the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 capped how many positions Medicare would pay for. And efforts to lift that cap haven't gone far.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor was at Skipper's to announce legislation she filed that would provide a $25 million matching grant program to help hospitals create new residency slots. The grants would be used only in states like Florida with a low ratio of medical residents.
"This is one of the only ways we can get out from under the cap," Castor, a Tampa Democrat, told the audience.
Students showed their commitment to graduate medical education with green T-shirts that said SAVE GME on the back.
The front of the shirts bore a lighter slogan: YOMO, or You Only Match Once.
Of USF's class of 121 students, nearly 40 percent will continue in Florida, with most of them staying in USF's program at Tampa General Hospital.
Katie Chitwood and John Briggs, who are married, embraced after learning they would be together at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
She interviewed in 18 cities and he in 15. Little wonder the application process can cost upward of $10,000, she noted.
Even after all that, "There are a lot of people who didn't match," Briggs pointed out.
Olga Zayko, a native of Ukraine, will do her general surgery residency in Brooklyn. Though she likes Florida, New York will offer good prospects for her husband to get an IT job.
"You're going to be a New York girl!" she told her nearly 3-year-old daughter, Avelin, who smiled and buried her face in her mother's shoulder.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.