Medical Students Mark 'Match Day' at UCSF

Future Physicians Experience Exhilarating Rite of Passage

By Kevin Eisenmann on March 22, 2012

As if medical school isn’t challenging enough.

Students study hard for years working toward a degree. They log long hours in clinics, labs, and classrooms. Then, just before graduation, they surrender their future to an algorithm.

This is the tradition of Match Day, when medical students across the country are matched to the residency program by a computer program, determining not only where they will work, but also the type of doctor they will become.

Map of where UCSF medical students will serve their residencies.

UCSF School of Medicine 2012 graduates were matched to residencies in 19 states. Residencies positions will begin later this spring.

“Every doctor remembers their Match Day,” said Maxine Papadakis, MD, assistant dean of students at UCSF School of Medicine. “It’s a moment when students know what their future will bring after medical school.”

On Friday, 158 UCSF medical students crowded into Millberry Union and were handed their match results in a sealed envelope. At precisely 9 a.m. — after a suspenseful countdown — they and more than 38,000 other U.S. medical school students opened the letters and learned their fates.

“A residency sets the stage for your career,” said Tyrone Chan, fourth-year medical student at UCSF. “You spend years there and it’s where you build your first professional network.”

The experience has been compared to opening SAT scores or a college acceptance letter in front of a large audience. It’s a situation that most of us would prefer to avoid and medical students are no exception.

UCSF medical students Cathra Halabi, Ty Chan and Eugene Kim

UCSF medical students, from left, Cathra Halabi, matched to neurology at UCSF, Ty Chan, matched to pediatrics at Stanford Hospital, and Eugene Kim matched to radiology at Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” Chan said. “It all comes down to this one moment and you just hope you get what you wanted.”

The hand-wringing process for Match Day primarily exists out of fairness. The National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), a private, not-for-profit corporation established in 1952 to provide the same date for appointments to residency positions, feeds all student performance data, scoring, and residency preferences into a database. After the numbers are crunched, every student across the country learns of their assignment at the same time. Gathering together to read the results comes out of a collegial tradition of support.

“Only your fellow classmates will understand the joy or heartbreak you feel after tearing open that envelope,” Papadakis said.

Chan was assigned a pediatric residency at Stanford University. “It was my first choice,” he said. “I’m very happy.”

Match Day 2012 saw the highest match rate nationally for medical schools in 30 years. More than 95 percent of seniors matched residency positions and 57 percent were matched to their first choice, according to data released by the NRMP. The number of total applicants this year rose by 642 for a total of 38,377 participants. These individuals applied for 26,772 positions, an increase of 614 over 2011. Internal medicine, anesthesiology, and emergency medicine saw the largest increases.

While the total number of applicants increased, the event also highlights the shortage of primary care doctors. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), 32 million Americans are set to enter the health care system in 2014 while a growing and aging population will live longer and need more medical care. While recent efforts on the part of medical schools have resulted in more residency positions across the country, the increases are insufficient to meet the nation’s future health care needs. The AAMC continues to work with medical schools to increase enrollment and residency opportunities.

Slideshow photos by Cindy Chew

Follow Kevin Eisenmann on Twitter: @kevineisenmann