The Association of American Medical Colleges reports the U.S. is in the early stages of an escalating physician shortage, with shortfalls between 37,800 and 124,000 doctors predicted by 2034. With two of every five active physicians approaching the age of retirement eligibility within that same time frame and the increasing healthcare demands of a growing and aging population, an increase in barriers to primary and specialty care is inevitable if the shortage is not addressed – especially for marginalized populations and those living in rural communities.
On Oct. 20, Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ), Rowan University, and the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) introduced their new Pathway to Medicine program, which offers an unprecedented advantage to local high school students eager to become part of the solution to that shortage. The pathway guarantees acceptance for five, high-achieving Cumberland and Gloucester County high school seniors annually into an accelerated, cost-saving pathway to a D.O. at a medical school located close to home.
“Rowan University is leading the way in addressing the nation's physician shortage through the Pathway to Medicine. Rowan's innovative approach to addressing the nation's problems is why it was crucial to create a research university with multiple medical schools and affiliated county colleges," said Steve Sweeney, the former Senate president who chairs Rowan University's Sweeney Center for Public Policy. “This is an enormous opportunity for the region as well, because this program will provide top students from Gloucester and Cumberland Counties with a low-cost option to study medicine close to home and hopefully pursue their careers here."
The ceremony was held at Rowan-Virtua SOM's Sewell medical school facility on RCSJ's Gloucester campus. The four-year medical school made history in 2022 when it became the first in New Jersey's history to open a location on a community college campus.
“I am very proud of how RCSJ and its administrators work in tandem with Rowan University leaders to make dreams a reality in South Jersey. In an area where there is a supply shortage, this Pathway to Medicine helps solve this problem in an incredibly affordable way," stated Frank J. DiMarco, director of the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners.
Rowan-Virtua SOM is one of only 41 osteopathic medicine schools in the country, according to the American Osteopathic Association's accrediting board. The association also reports that applications to osteopathic medicine schools have increased by 93% between 2011 and 2022, and this academic year they will educate 25% of all U.S. medical students.
Through the Pathway to Medicine, incoming freshmen earn their A.S. in Biology from RCSJ then seamlessly transfer into Rowan University's Biology baccalaureate program. After finishing their junior year, the five top-ranking students from Cumberland and Gloucester County are guaranteed acceptance into Rowan-Virtua SOM, where they complete their senior year at Rowan University while simultaneously enrolled in their first year of medical school – graduating with their D.O. in seven years, rather than the traditional eight.
“It's been well shown that if you go to medical school in your state, and you complete graduate medical education in your state, you are likely to practice medicine in your state," remarked Dr. Thomas Cavalieri, vice president of Rowan-Virtua College of Medicine & Life Sciences and Chief Academic Officer for Virtua Health. “The Pathway to Medicine will produce caring, compassionate, and skillful physicians from diverse backgrounds who will be leaders in their community. That concept of diversity is critical because, when physicians look like the community they're serving, care improves."
Exceptionally motivated high school students interested in the Pathway to Medicine can save even more time and money if they choose to jump-start their A.S. in Biology through RCSJ's High School Option program (HSOP). HSOP allows students ages 15-18 to attend RCSJ courses at a discounted tuition rate. Students may choose to satisfy a few course requirements towards their future degree, or even complete their A.S. in Biology while still in high school and potentially begin medical school just one year after high school graduation through the Pathway to Medicine.
“My journey here started in 2013 at a community college in Central Jersey," noted second-year Rowan-Virtua SOM student, Benjamin Infosino. “A program like this that will really pave the way – that will allow future students to take a lot less detours than I did and that will cost a lot less than [I paid] – I think this is a fantastic thing that's been put together."
Students will receive the support they need to meet the challenges of medical school and excel at each step along the Pathway to Medicine, including specialized academic and career advising; peer mentoring; support from campus pre-med clubs and organizations; educational workshops, seminars, and demonstrations; on-site clinical, laboratory, and career shadowing experiences; MCAT preparation assistance and more.
“I started by taking classes at a community college near me, and it's really hard to go into a community college and say you want to be a doctor. People don't always take you very seriously," reflected fellow second-year Rowan-Virtua SOM student, Sally Rohan. “I think it's amazing that you are all showing community college students that you believe in their ability to become doctors. As someone who's experienced that doubt, I think you're really going to change lives."
Flexibility is built into the program at every level. If a student decides the accelerated pathway does not best suit their needs, or if they are not selected to fill one of the guaranteed seats, they can choose to continue at the standard pace and apply to Rowan-Virtua SOM after earning their B.S. If a student is passionate about the medical field but no longer wishes to become a D.O., they will be counseled on other graduate-level health programs that align with their career goals.
“The collective goal for the Pathway to Medicine is to support the success of aspiring doctors in our own Cumberland and Gloucester County high schools by offering a more affordable, accessible, and local pathway to a D.O.," outlined Dr. Frederick Keating, president of RCSJ. “Our foremost concern for this pathway was ensuring that students from populations underrepresented within the profession had the economic support required to finance medical school. Thanks to David Slack, a generous and forward-thinking member of our Rowan College Foundation Board, we will soon be announcing the Medical Prep Academy's College of Osteopathic Medicine Scholarship program, which will help support diversity in our local doctor's offices."
The Pathway to Medicine will soon begin accepting applications for the fall 2024 semester. Applications will be reviewed by a joint committee comprised of members from each institution and the applicant's high school GPA, rank-in-class, and letters of recommendation – along with SAT or ACT scores in verbal and mathematical components – will be of primary importance for acceptance.
Fill out an interest form to be contacted once the Pathway to Medicine opens for applications at RCSJ.edu/STEM/Biology.