Residency Match Process Under Scrutiny by AMA

The American Medical Association (AMA) is considering whether to study alternatives to the current residency matching program in an effort to improve residents’ compensation and other job-related issues. A recent call-to-action resolution by the AMA’s House of Delegates is the latest in a long string of debates about whether to change the annual process that matches future doctors with compatible residency programs.

AMA’s Resident and Fellow Section introduced the resolution in March, and the delegates approved it earlier this month at AMA’s annual meeting. The resolution states that the match process of the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) “poses significant anticompetition concerns.” Those include preventing residents from negotiating for higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions, according to the approved resolution.

The full AMA board still has to consider the resolution and hasn’t set a date for that review, though it’s expected to be in the next few months, according to Jennifer Sellers, AMA’s public information officer. She told Medscape Medical News that the organization declined to comment, wanting to hold off until the board decides how to proceed.

The NRMP, which oversees the matching process, told Medscape that the AMA doesn’t play a role in the Match.

The organization doesn’t believe studying alternative placement methods benefits applicants and residents, and returning to a pre-Match environment would harm applicants and programs, according to Donna Lamb, DHSc, MBA, BSN, president and CEO.

“The NRMP has no role in determining, publishing, or setting resident salaries nor does the NRMP have a role in the contracting or employment of residents and it never has.”

Lamb said changing the Match would “subject applicants to undue pressure and coercion to accept an offer of training. This will exacerbate disparities in candidate selection already evident in medical education and potentially result in salary reductions in more competitive specialties and in more desirable geographic locations.”

The latest push to reform the match process dates back two decades to a 2002 class action antitrust lawsuit by residents and doctors against the NRMP and other organizations involved in the Match.

The residents argued at that time that by restraining competition among teaching hospitals, the matching system allowed hospitals to keep residents’ wages artificially low. The defendants, which included large teaching hospitals, successfully lobbied Congress for an exemption to the antitrust laws, and the case was subsequently dismissed.

The AMA was one of the defendants, so if it moves forward to review the match process, it likely would pit the organization against the NRMP.

Sherman Marek, the attorney who represented the residents, told Medscape he was not surprised by the latest AMA resolution. “Maybe the AMA leadership has come around to the idea that it’s better for young physicians to not have the match in place,” he says. “I would applaud that sort of evolution.”

Tyler Ramsey, DO, an internal medicine resident and AMA member, said he believes the group’s current president, Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, empathizes with doctors in training. “I think he understands [our] views and is more progressive.”

The NRMP also has considered ways to improve the match process to make it easier and more equitable for applicants. In its latest effort, the organization is studying whether programs should certify their rank order list in advance of applicants. This change would give applicants more flexibility to visit residency locations before the programs consider changing their rankings, Lamb explained. The NRMP also is mulling the possibilities of a two-phase match after deciding last year not to move forward with a previous version of the proposal.

The recent House of Delegates resolution states that “residents are using other means to obtain fair wages, safe working conditions, and other benefits that are unable to be negotiated within the current system.”

Ramsey, who trains in North Carolina, said the “other means” may include negotiating through a union. “The AMA realizes that there is a problem, and that people are unionizing,” he said. “Obviously, as an organization, we’re not doing something correctly, to the point where people are feeling the need to get their rights a different way.”

The Committee of Interns and Residents, which represents 30,000 members, reported a rise in medical trainee unions across the country last year.

Not everyone believes that ditching the Match would benefit applicants and residents. Sam Payabvash, MD, assistant professor of radiology at Yale School of Medicine, tweeted about the resolution as part of a larger Twitter discussion that alternatives are likely to be “more onerous and expensive for applicants.”

An advantage of the Match, Lamb argued, is that it “improves the reach of applicants into medically underserved communities through widespread program participation.”

Ramsey agreed that the match program has benefits and drawbacks, but he believes it favors programs over residents. “It comes as no surprise that numerous residents suffer from depression and our suicide rates are the highest amongst all professions due to the lack of control or negotiation of fair salary and working conditions. Overall, the way things are now, residents just do not have a lot of rights.”

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