Orthopaedic surgery is one of the most competitive specialties for residency applicants. For the 2021 residency match, the coronavirus-19 pandemic introduced complexity for programs and applicants because away rotations were limited and in-person interviews were cancelled. This may have changed the landscape in terms of expenses for candidates in important ways, but this topic has been insufficiently studied.
Given that in 2021, students did not attend away rotations and all interviews were held virtually, we asked (1) What were the financial savings associated with this change? (2) Was medical school geographic region associated with differences in expenses when applying to residency?
A retrospective, cross-sectional analysis of the 2020 and 2021 Texas Seeking Transparency in Application to Residency Dashboard database was performed. The data were derived from an online survey of a nationwide pool of applicants from 87% (123 of 141) of US allopathic medical schools upon conclusion of the match. The response percentage was 29% (521 of 1794). We believe this nationwide dataset represents the largest and most current data for this applicant group. Responses from applicants applying to orthopaedic surgery residency in the year before the COVID-19 pandemic application changes (2020) and during COVID-19 (2021) were queried and compared. After the orthopaedic surgery match, the database was evaluated for individual (application costs, away rotation expenses, and interview expenses) and total expenses for medical school seniors applying to orthopaedic surgery residency. Applicant characteristics were compared between application cycles. The 2020 to 2021 Texas Seeking Transparency in Application to Residency Dashboard database had 521 responses (n = 263 in 2020 and n = 258 in 2021) from applicants applying to orthopaedic surgery residency. Demographic and applicant characteristics were comparable between application cycles. Median expenses are reported with percentile distributions and geographic comparisons. A Mann-Whitney U test or Kruskal-Wallis H test was used to determine whether there were statistically significant differences in expenses between years and between medical school regions at a p value threshold of < 0.05.
For all applicants, the median total expenses (USD 7250 versus USD 2250), application costs (USD 2250 versus USD 1750), away rotation expenses (USD 2750 versus USD 250), and interview expenses (USD 2250 versus USD 75) declined in 2021 compared with 2020 (all p < 0.001). The median total savings in expenses for all applicants in 2021 compared with 2020 was USD 5000. In 2021, median total expenses were lower in all geographic regions with the greatest savings from applicants in the West (USD 6000); in addition, the difference in median total expenses between the geographic region with the highest total expenses and the lowest total expenses was lower in the pandemic year than it was in the year prior (USD 1000 versus USD 1500; p < 0.001). In 2021, there were differences in total expenses between the Northeast (USD 1750), West (USD 1750), and Central (USD 2750) regions (p < 0.001). From 2020 to 2021, only application fees from Northeast applicants differed (USD 2250 versus USD 1250; p < 0.001). In 2020, interview expenses were not different between all regions (USD 2250 Northeast and West versus USD 2750 Central and South; p = 0.19); similarly in 2021, interview expenses were similar between all regions (USD 75 versus USD 75; p = 0.82). Finally, in 2020, Northeast (USD 3250) and Western (USD 3250) applicants spent more for away rotations than Southern (USD 2750) and Central (USD 2250) applicants (p = 0.01). In 2021, applicants from schools in the South (USD 250) and Central (USD 250) regions spent more than their counterparts (USD 0; p = 0.028).
In the COVID-19 application cycle, the median expenditures of orthopaedic residency candidates were USD 5000 lower than they were in the previous year; the difference can be attributed to the use of virtual interviews and the lack of away rotations. There are geographic implications, with applicants from Western United States medical schools potentially saving the most. Despite the financial savings during the 2021 match, further study related to the long-term success of the current application process (both for applicants and programs) is needed. The recommendation in May 2020 by the AOA Council of Orthopaedic Residency Directors (CORD) to limit the number of applications submitted by candidates with USMLE Step 1 scores greater than 235 did not result in any considerable decline in applications submitted or expenses. A better understanding of how differences in these expenses may influence our specialty’s ability to attract socioeconomically diverse candidates would be important, and we need to explore perceived and actual financial obstacles to obtaining this diversity in the application process. Finally, avenues should be explored by program directors and chairpersons to reduce the expenses of the traditional application process while maintaining recruitment of top candidates.
Level of Evidence
Level IV, economic analysis.