Much is being said about the steady and dramatic decline in applications to nephrology training programs. The recent match shows a continuation of this trend: 67.9 percent of offered positions filled, leaving 50% of US programs unfilled on match day. The writing is on the wall: the number nephrology training positions needs to shrink. However, there is going to be no agreeable and easy way to decide which program should reduce size or close its doors. Should we let programs decide what to do individually or should we defer decisions to some governing body? Should programs that go unfilled be forced to reduce numbers or shut down, the so-called “survival of the fittest” model? Or should we create an algorithm to decide how to reduce positions more equitably?
Tejas Desai posted a paper that describes a more equitable model by allocating training positions according to ESRD prevalence in US states/jurisdictions. In his model, he estimates that fewer jurisdictions would reduce in size under an equitable model compared to the “survival of the fittest” model. An “equitable” process using an algorithm is attractive because it would distribute the allocation of positions based on some objective measure, like ESRD prevalence. This would benefit training programs that have a harder time recruiting. An equal proportions model may “share the pain” so certain regions are not affected disproportionately than others, thus retaining program directors and training infrastructure for when applications rebound (assuming they will).
As a fellow in training, I worry that any algorithmic approach to this problem will be focused too heavily on the needs of the training program and not the applicants. In that sense, the “survival of the fittest” model is more oriented to a fellow’s actual needs. Program desirability is likely driven by a mix of perceived program quality and factors unrelated to quality like geographic region, cost of living, or job opportunities for spouses, for example. In this thin market with so few applicants, program quality is not as much of a distinguishing factor. I think it’s safe to assume that fellows will work hard everywhere and that training program directors and faculty truly care about fellow education at all programs. In that sense, these factors not directly related to program quality will likely influence an applicant’s decision. I think it’s safe to assume that if these factors matter today, then they will likely be valued again by applicants in future years. If we are truly on board with a mission to increase interest in nephrology, we can start by paying attention to where people want to train and why. The NRMP Match rank list is a reasonable way to understand this.
Simply allocating positions based on ESRD prevalence or any other equitable algorithm favors at-risk programs, but it does not take into account trainee preferences. Many trainees desire specialized training in transplantation, glomerulonephritis, interventional nephrology, clinical research, basic science research, medical education, quality improvement, or health informatics. Some programs are more desirable because they can provide these individualized opportunities for career development. Access to one of these programs might be more limited through an algorithmic approach to training position allocation. Who knows, if word got out that positions have been weighted to regions based on ESRD prevalence alone, it may perpetuate the stereotype among residents that nephrologists are nothing more than dialysis technicians, missing the breadth and depth of actual practice. If fewer positions are made available in highly desirable programs, then it would be wrong to assume an applicant will be just as happy or available to train elsewhere. Given that some applicants desire certain locations due to factors like job opportunities for spouses, reducing positions in those desirable locations may be enough to convince the applicant to choose an alternative career like hospital medicine for example, where opportunity is abundant.
The nephrology community should remember that the primary issue is lack of interest. Efforts to increase interest should be at the center of the discussion. Deciding how to reduce positions will be controversial and it will be tough to find agreement. Maybe the best solution will need to consider everyone’s needs equally: considering applicant choices/preferences and also minimizing program dissolution. One model for position allocation could be based on an incentive for producing more nephrology applicants: You get fellowship training positions if you contribute to the applicant pool by mentoring/developing the residents and students at your institution. This would actually address the underlying problem wouldn’t it? I applaud Dr. Desai for starting this conversation. Even if some final complex algorithm is required, I just hope that applicant and fellow preferences are not ignored.