For the sixth consecutive year, the number of applicants to medical schools nationwide has declined. This trend includes the University of Wisconsin Medical School, but officials say they are not worried.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the total number of applications received this year was 33,501. This represents a 4 percent decrease from last year and is 29 percent lower than its peak in 1996 of nearly 47,000 applicants.

The number of males applying to medical school has also been declining since 1980, in contrast to the increasing number of female applicants. However, the number of female applicants for the 2002 school year did decrease slightly.

UW’s application pool over the past four years has only decreased by 350 people, with the number of males and females applying remaining relatively constant and close in number between the two sexes. Approximately half of UW’s currently enrolled medical students are women.

“We have an adequate number of applicants at the UW Medical School, and we’re especially pleased with the diversity of applicants,” said Philip M. Farrell, dean of UW’s Medical School.

“Frankly, the increased quantity and quality of women applying to medical school has made a major difference in our ability to continue recruiting outstanding classes of medical students.”

However, Farrell attributes the nationwide decline in applicants over the past six years to the attractive opportunities of other fields, the long duration of training required for medical practice, high tuition for medical school and the pressures of medical practice in an environment affected by corporate and legal challenges.

For the year 2003, AAMC has projected an increase in medical school applicants due to the number of people who took the Medical College Admission Test this year. Applicants must take the MCAT during the year prior to applying. So far, 57,573 exams have been given, which shows an increase of 5.6 percent from last year.

Applications that have already been processed for this upcoming year by AAMC’s American Medical College Application Service are also showing a promising increase. The number of applications received is already up 6 percent compared to the number that had been received last year at this time.

With fewer people applying to medical school, shortages in these occupations are bound to occur. According to Michael J. Dunn, M.D., executive vice president and dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin, the academic quality of applicants has not declined; however, a more balanced lifestyle is preferred by many, which, in turn, makes people less attracted to practice specialties that demand long residencies and long hours.

“I’m concerned about the projected physician shortage, which may have a serious impact on U.S. health care in five to 10 years,” Farrell said.

“You can still be confident that you’ll receive top medical care in Wisconsin if we and MCW (Medical College of Wisconsin) continue to be successful. However, the situation nationwide may not be as favorable.”