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Stanford University School of Medicine

Addressing the need for more physician scientists

For years experts have been warning that the shortage of physician-scientists (professionals with both an MD and PhD) will reduce the number of scientific discoveries that can be used in medical practice. Now, after nearly four decades of hitting the snooze button on this alarm, a new analysis suggests it's time to wake up.

This "depressing set of trends," as NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, put it in a recent advisory meeting, shows that now there is even less support and incentive for people to pursue careers that span medicine and research than there was in the 1980s. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education states:

At least a couple of major points are clear. One is that over the past 20 years, NIH grant awards to researchers with a PhD have grown most years, while grant awards to those with an MD or a combined MD-PhD have held flat.

The other is that it now takes students longer to earn an MD-PhD, which means the payoff is delayed. The average length of time to complete an MD degree is four years, while the average for an MD-PhD now exceeds eight, according to the medical-colleges association. That average has risen from about 6.5 years back in the 1980s, due largely to increases in the PhD portion, as scientific discovery grows ever more complicated.

That longer time frame is a clear discouragement to M.D.-Ph.D. hopefuls, said Hannah A. Valantine, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who now serves as chief officer for scientific work-force diversity at the NIH.

The article goes on to outline what some institutions are doing to address the issue and mentions Stanford medical school's plan to give MD students who aren't pursuing a PhD more options and opportunities to participate in research. "Students who gain even a year of research experience are valuable to the nation’s scientific enterprise," Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, pointed out.
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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