The final numbers won’t look much different, but the 2021 Match results will be unlike any before. As of mid-January, only 16 more institutions were confirmed to be participating in Match Day this year, resulting in about 800 more positions, said Donna Lamb, president and CEO of the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). The Electronic Residency Application Service reported about 50,000 individual applicant submissions, a slight increase from prior years.
The stats may be similar, but the current residency application cycle may lead to wildly different results after the pandemic forced interviews to be conducted virtually and caused the cancellation of most away clinical rotations. Troy Amen, a fifth-year MD-MBA student at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and copresident of his student class, says the lack of on-campus, in-person experiences means students feel more in the dark than ever. The same is true for institutions. “The programs are also suffering because now they don’t know which students are a good ‘cultural fit’ for them,” he said.
Standing out has always been a concern for prospective residents, but Mr. Amen says fears are even higher this year. “[Institutions are] struggling to vet out 850 applicants, and they have no connection to us.”
Organizations have scrambled to keep the process as fair and informative as possible. “Everyone is trying to do the right thing here,” said Alison J. Whelan, MD, chief academic officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). She says that although the process has significantly changed, the heart of it remains the same. “The bottom line is directors really want to fill their intern class, and schools and students really want to match.”
Since the NRMP was established in 1952, it has never had to contend with a pandemic of this scale. The unprecedented circumstances have led to some much-feared and some unexpected changes, like top candidates “stealing” interview slots, “swag bags” sent to entice residents, beefed-up online profiles, as well as “Zoom fatigue,” a spike in home-field advantage for institutions, and massive anxiety for those students staking their future to a city they may have never seen in person.
What was lost and what was gained
“It’s really hard to get a real feel for the program when you’ve not been there in person,” said Christopher Smith, MD, director of the internal medicine residency program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Dr. Smith recalled interviewing for residencies 25 years ago. His wife, a teacher, took time off to travel with him.
“She would ‘interview the town’ while I interviewed the program, and we compared notes at night,” he said. Because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, just physically seeing the city in which they may live for years wasn’t an option for many. “I have a lot of sympathy for students applying right now,” Dr. Smith said.
For the residency class of 2021, the first shoe really dropped last March, when the AAMC issued guidance strongly recommending that programs pause clinical rotations away from their home schools. As established doctors know well, and as graduating medical students confirmed, these rotations are crucial to understanding a program’s culture and gaining experience that can boost candidacy. “I’m applying to orthopedic surgery, where away rotations are the gold standard for impressing attendees and residents at institutions away from home,” said Mr. Amen.
The pandemic completely cut off that key source of information to determine the right fit. It also meant applicants couldn’t have as diverse a portfolio of recommendation letters, something many worry may be detrimental to their soon-to-be-released Match rankings.
Unlike the loss of away rotations, the forced shift from in-person to virtual interviews had some meaningful benefits. Students no longer incurred expenses for airline flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars. Many organizations and programs have been trying for years to figure out how to lower the financial burden of interviews to make the process more equitable for those at economic or other disadvantage.
“The equity piece of this is huge – decreasing barriers and leveling the field a little bit is a really huge advantage,” said Kate Shaw, MD, residency program director and associate chair of education for the obstetrics and gynecology program at Stanford (Calif.) University. In some ways, this latest change is an extension of a strategy Dr. Shaw and others had already begun implementing.
“Over the last 5 to 10 years, we’ve been working to address the implicit bias in the application process, so we’ve gone to a holistic review of applicants, where we don’t have score cutoffs. We look at the whole person,” she said. “And we did that in an effort to increase diversity and equity.” Dr. Shaw and others hope that the accidental positive changes from COVID restrictions may be intentionally preserved long after the pandemic ends.