by Stuart Pickell, MD, TCMS President
This article was originally published in the March/April issue of the Tarrant County Physician.
Why Do We Not Have a Pediatric Residency Program in FORT WORTH?
WHEN I MOVED BACK TO FORT WORTH in 2001, I wondered why we had so few graduate medical education (GME) programs. I came to understand, from those who should know, that Fort Worth simply wasn’t an “academic” city. We had one of the finest osteopathic medical schools in the country, several excellent medical centers, and a fine children’s hospital, but relatively few residency positions for a city our size. In 2011, the Texas Legislature, concerned that the physician workforce would not keep pace with Texas’ rising population, established a goal of 1.1 residency training positions for every Texas medical school graduate. Physicians often remain near where they train, so the reasoning was and continues to be sound. Achieving and maintaining this goal helps to build and sustain the physician workforce.
Fortunately, with no help from Tarrant County, Texas achieved its goal in 2017 (see Table 1). However, the impending graduation of student from new medical schools in the next two years will increase the demand for PGY-1 positions. the Burnett TCU School of Medicine will graduate its first class in May. A year later the Sam Houston University College of Osteopathic Medicine and the University of Houston College of Medicine will graduate their first classes. By 2024, to maintain the minimum 1.1 ratio, Texas will need to increase the number of residency positions by 5 percent, and to maintain its current 1.16 ratio, it will need to increase the number of positions by 10.8 percent.
In the last few years, Tarrant County’s medical community began meeting the challenge by starting several new residency programs. This is a welcome, albeit long overdue, development. Baylor Scott and White and Texas Health Resources have led the way to these recent changes by starting programs in internal medicine, ob-gyn, emergency medicine, and general surgery- this in addition to the programs already established at John Peter Smith and Medical City. The elephant in the room is pediatrics.
Why does Fort Worth, the 13th largest city in the country and home to the 13th largest children’s hospital, not have a pediatric physician residency program? I include the word “physician” because Cook children’s does have a pediatric residency program for nurses. In fact, it has one of the only 34 such programs in the country, but it does not have a program to train physicians- and its the only children’s hospital that has a program for nurses and not physicians. But as the population grows, won’t we need more pediatricians? Regional growth trends suggest we will. For instance, in just the last five years:
• The U.S. population increased by 2.7 percent
• The Texas population increased by 5.8 percent
• The Fort Worth population increased by 9.3 percent
• Fort Worth went from being the 16th to the 13th largest city in the country
• The number of PGY-1 pediatric residency positions in Texas increased from 211 to 213, or 0.95 percent
Looking at the 30 largest cities in the United States, Fort Worth is the only one that doesn’t have a pediatric residency program. Jacksonville, FL, which ranks just ahead of Fort Worth in population, for now, has a pediatric residency program, and it doesn’t even have a medical school. Fort Worth has two medical schools.
Within Texas you will find residency programs in the larger cities – Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin – but you will also find them in El Paso, Corpus Christi, Lubbock, Temple, Galveston, and Amarillo. The only other cities in Texas that have a medical school and no pediatric residency program are College Station, Edinburgh and Conroe. So, why not Cook Children’s?
I’ve asked this question to more than a few people affiliated with Cook Children’s – some who would like to see a physician GME program and others who would not. While they disagree on the proposition, they generally agree on the historical timeline and current sentiment. Cook Children’s, the result of a merger of Fort Worth’s two children’s hospitals in the 1980s, had a unique vision from its inception. Like many large children’s hospitals, it offered state-of-the-art care for pediatric patients, but it also vowed that patients would only be treated by board-certified pediatricians, i.e., no students or residents. Since most of Fort Worth’s hospitals didn’t have GME programs, Cook Children’s was not an outlier.
What made Cook Children’s particularly unique was its size and resources combined with its lack of GME entanglements. Cook Children’s leveraged this latter feature to recruit physicians who wanted to be clinicians, not educators. A vocal minority of the current medical staff have embraced this feature and do not want it to change. There is also a vocal minority who knew Cook Children’s wasn’t an academic institution when they joined but believe now that it should be. Many others – probably a majority, although no formal vote has been taken – would be fine with a GME program if one existed, but they could go either way.
In recent years, the subject has been revisited several times. About five years ago, Cook Children’s hired Germane Solutions, a GME consulting firm, to examine the viability of a GME program and assist in its development. Their findings are proprietary, but the consensus of the people with whom I talked is that Cook Children’s is positioned to have an outstanding GME program if it wants one. Furthermore, it would enhance the hospital’s national profile and be a financial boon to the local economy. But the success of a GME program hinges on having a medical staff who supports it. One vocal minority does, the other does not. And while the support doesn’t need to be unanimous to make it work, it wasn’t clear that enough of the middle majority supported it to the point it would reach the critical mass needed to make it worth pursuing.
Some theorize that demand for more pediatric residency positions among graduating medical students is lacking, and there is some truth to this claim. In the 2021 match, there were 1.47 pediatric PGY-1 positions for every graduating U.S. medical student who applied for one. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Between 2016 and 2021, a concerning trend emerged. While nationally the number of pediatrics PGY-1 positions increased by 6 percent there was a 14 percent decrease in the number of U.S. medical graduates applying for them.
Fortunately, foreign medical graduates have filled the void, resulting in a match-fill rate consistently over 98 percent, which makes pediatrics appear both desired and competitive. But shouldn’t the decreased domestic interest in pediatrics provoke more questions? Why are U.S. medical students not considering pediatrics?
One perennial concern is low pay relative to other specialties, including pediatric subspecialties. As one of my residency attendings used to quip, “Little people, little money.” This must be on the minds of even the most altruistic of medical students for whom the average student loan debt upon graduation is over $200,000. But perhaps students everywhere are picking up on a trend that Cook Children’s is actively embracing- a hidden curriculum embedded in the cook Children’s philosophy as evidenced by the presence of a residency program for nurses but not physicians, that the future of primary care pediatrics is really nursing.
“Baylor Scott and White and Texas Health Resources have led the way to these recent changes . . . this in addition to the programs already established at John Peter Smith and Medical City. The elephant in the room is pediatrics.”
I hope this is not the case, because while value the contributions that nurses and APPs bring to the clinical care team, their training is qualitatively and quantitatively different from that of a physician. These teams should be supervised by physicians, and those physicians need to be trained… somewhere.
Why no Cook Children’s? Medical staff aside, they have the resources. So, how many attendings does Cook Children’s need to reach the critical mass necessary to start a residency program for physicians as well as nurses. A hospital with their resources could have a large residency program. To make a comparison, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles is roughly the same size as Cook Children’s could start with eight, the same size as Texas Tech’s program in Lubbock. considering that physicians often practice where they train, could Cook Children’s not do this for the community’s sake?
The Cook Children’s Health Care System and its flagship hospital are. a well-kept secret that will not reach its full potential until It becomes an academic training facility with education and research affiliations. To illustrate this, U.S. News & World Report ranks the top 50 children’s hospitals in 10 different specialties. Most hospitals comparable to Cook Children’s rank in nine or 10 of these specialties, often in the top 30. Cook Children’s ranks in only six, the highest being neurosurgery at 20. The others come in at 38, 41, 43, 48 and 50.
The hospital website states: “As one of the fastest growing areas in the United States, Cook Children’s is continually looking ahead to meet the needs of a very diverse population.” No one will argue with this. Cook Children’s is one of the finest children’s hospitals in the United States. As a city and as a medical community we should be- and are- proud of it. But can it not look further ahead and become home to one of the finest pediatric residency programs as well? Becoming an academic center will enhance its national profile and bolster the pediatric workforce in Texas by exposing students to high-quality pediatric primary care and specialty services early in their training, while providing an exceptional place for them to continue their training and work after they graduate.
Most things worth doing require effort. Starting a new residency program is no exception. Some physicians to me that now is not the right time, that in the wake of COVID-19 they don’t have the bandwidth for it. But will there ever be a “right” time? wll there ever be a time when the stars in heaven align, and there is a unanimous agreement that the time has arrived?
First century rabbi Hillel the Elder once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Indeed. Given the need and the benefit to the community, perhaps now is the right time after all.
1. The Texas Hospital Association’s educational series on hospital finance: “Graduate Medical Education, Part 5” – https://www.tha.org/wp- content/uploads/2022/04/Financing_GME_FI- NAL.pdf
2. Data for 2011-2019 may be found in a paper written by the Academic Quality and Workforce of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board: “The Graduate Medical Education (GME Report: An Assessment of Opportunities for Graduates of Texas Medical Schools to Enter Residency Programs in Texas.” This was a report to the Texas Legislature per Texas Education Code, Section 61.0661, October 2020, p.x.
3. See: The Kaiser Family Foundation website: https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/total-medical-school-graduates/
4. See: https://www.residencyprogramslist.com/ in-texas
5. “The Graduate Medical Education (GME) Report: An Assessment of Opportunities for Graduates of the Texas Medical Schools to Enter Residency Programs in Texas.” October 2020, P. 17
6. Cook Children’s Hospital consistently ranks between the 10th and the 18th largest children’s hospital in the United States depending on whether we are looking at licensed beds, staffed beds, and when the reporting was obtained.
7. See U.S. Census data at: https://www.census. gov/
8. See data from the National Residency Matching nrmp.org/
9. Not surprisingly, every U.S. city with more than one medical school has a pediatric residency program, except Fort Worth.
10. Information obtained for this article synthe- sizes conversations I had with 10 different people, all of whom are knowledgeable of Cook Children’s Medical Center (CCMC) and the movement to develop a physician residency program. Because of the sensitive nature of this topic, I promised that I would not reveal their names or quote them directly but would make a good faith effort to com- municate their understanding of the issue. They did not all agree on whether CCMC should pursue a residency, but they did agree on the major points outlined in the article. Of the 10, eight are or were employed by CCMC, almost all in leadership posi- tions. Three of those have retired and five remain on staff. The other two, both physicians, are lead- ers in the medical community and/or at CCMC and in a position to speak to this topic.
11. See: https://educationdata.org/average-medi- cal-school-debt
12. See https://health.usnews.com/best-hospitals/ pediatric-rankings
13. See: https://www.cookchildrens.org/about/ history/
14. Mishnah Avot 1:14. See: https://www.sefaria. org/Pirkei_Avot.1.14?lang=bi