And health-care reform is at least part of the reason.
Every March on "Match Day," thousands of graduating medical students learn where they will spend the next three to seven years training in the specialty of their choice. This year, the number of medical school seniors matched to family medicine residency programs rose 11 percent over 2010 — the second year in a row enrollment has grown, according to the National Resident Matching Program.
Two other primary care-related fields — internal medicine and pediatrics — also saw enrollment gains.
In fact, internal medicine was the most popular specialty chosen by students from both the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine this year.
The trend is encouraging, given that the United States is expected to face a massive shortage of primary care doctors. The American Academy of Medical Colleges estimates that the nation's physician shortage, previously projected at nearly 40,000, will grow to 63,000 the year after most of the federal Affordable Care Act goes into effect.
Still, health-care reform has played a role in luring medical students back to primary care fields, with provisions that would increase Medicare reimbursement to primary care doctors, raise Medicaid payments for certain services and expand debt foregiveness programs for medical students willing to work in underserved areas, said Dr. John Prescott, the academy's chief academic officer.
New efforts to improve health-care delivery in ways that "produce great results for patients and are also very satisfying for physicians" have sparked renewed interest in primary care as well, Prescott said.
Eric Chen, a U. of C. medical student who will be doing his residency at Oregon Health and Science University, said that "dialogue about health reform" was a big reason he wanted to go into family medicine. "There are a lot of high-level thinkers that are trying to rethink health-care delivery, and I want to be part of those conversations," said Chen, of Palo Alto, Calif.
UIC student Jamie Brewer was drawn to internal medicine because she said "it's obvious that there's a need in that area," and being a primary care doctor is "about more than just fixing the problem and sending the patient home."
"You're able to work with the patient from the beginning and teach them how to be better able to manage their own medical issues," said Brewer, of Calumet Park, who's headed to the University of Chicago Medical Center. "I like that aspect of treating the whole patient."