March 17, 2017 | It was smiles all around at Match Day 2017, because for the first time in several years, all of the graduating class of the UAMS College of Medicine “matched” with a residency after medical school.

Starting at 11 a.m. Central Time on March 17 simultaneously across the nation, senior medical students opened the envelopes to reveal where they had matched to complete their residencies for the next three to seven years. An eager crowd of family, friends and educators shared in the annual rite of passage at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock.

Richard Wheeler, M.D., executive associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Medicine, said the 2017 graduating class had the best match rate since 2006. In his 30 years of coordinating Match Day at UAMS, it has become increasingly difficult to match the growing number of medical school graduates to the number of residency slots, which have not kept pace nationally with the rise in graduates.

“So this is really a banner day,” Wheeler said. “This is a really big deal. We’re so excited for them. The students work so hard for four years, and in some cases longer, so this is their day to celebrate all that hard work and we celebrate their successes with them.”

Among the 158 who participated in the match, 63 seniors matched with residencies in Arkansas and 95 matched with residencies in 31 different states. Sixty-one percent matched with residencies in primary care, including 28 students going into internal medicine and 26 going into family medicine.

“This is the largest percent going into primary care since I started tracking these statistics in 2004,” Wheeler said.

Thousands of medical students participate in Match Day through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). Students in their fourth year apply to programs, interview and then send a ranked list to the NRMP. Residency programs also submit a list of preferred candidates, and an NRMP computer, using an algorithm, reconciles the lists as best as possible.

The NRMP billed the 2017 Main Residency Match as the largest in history, exceeding the more than 42,000 applicants who registered for the 2016 Match and the more than 4,800 residency programs at institutions across the country that offered more than 30,000 positions last year.

Match Day is exciting, but it can also be stressful, especially for couples, like Colby Smith and Kelsey Sparks, who met as undergraduates at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and married between their second and third years of medical school at UAMS. Fortunately, they had already accepted the fact that their careers will occasionally complicate their lives together.

“When we decided to marry, we talked with the school administration to find a convenient date for our wedding and honeymoon,” Sparks said. “Well, after we had picked out the dates, the academic calendar shifted and we had to go on our honeymoon a week before our wedding. But we enjoyed it, and now we look back on it as a first taste of the inconveniences of life as future doctors.”

Sparks said it has been a tremendous benefit for both of them to have a partner throughout medical school. They understand what the other is going through and can provide support. However, they have also learned that it takes effort to prioritize their relationship while also advancing their careers. Match Day was no different.

“To ensure that we matched together, we worked hard throughout medical school and also made our list in a way that guaranteed we would be in the same city,” Sparks said.

Sparks and Smith opened their envelopes at Match Day to reveal two positions in Cincinnati, Ohio – Sparks at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in internal medicine and Smith at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in pediatrics. Afterward, the couple breathed a sigh of relief and let it sink in that they got into one of their top choices.

“All that matters is that we got jobs together in the same city,” Smith said. “It’s just a bonus that it’s at a great program.”

A short time earlier, Matt O’Neal and his fiancé Erika Lozano Franz (pictured above) got the news that they would both be at the University of Utah – Loranzo Franz in pediatrics and O’Neal in general surgery. The program was their top choice.

O’Neal and Loranzo Franz met the first day of medical school at UAMS. They got engaged on Feb. 8, 2015. They also arranged their match rankings in such a way as to stay together, selecting an option that stipulates that if they don’t both match at the same place, one of them will go unmatched and try again the following year.

“Basically, we chose our relationship over the certainty of both of us matching,” Loranzo Franz said. “We aren’t willing to be separated. But at the end of the day, everyone participating in Match Day feels fortunate to match, period. It’s been amazing having each other to rely on throughout med school, so despite the extra stress, we – of course – wouldn’t change a thing.”

In addition to the fates of the couples, much of the drama on Match Day centered around students who got into elite programs or wanted to stay close to home in Arkansas at UAMS.

Stephen Nix, of Hope, Ark., matched at Johns Hopkins Hospital in anatomic and neuropathology, which was his top choice. Nix said he owed much of his success to UAMS faculty, specifically thanking Murat Gokden, M.D.; William C. Culp, M.D.; Charles Matthew Quick, M.D.; Jerad Gardner, M.D.; and David Davies, Ph.D.

“I feel that my time at UAMS really prepared me to go to Johns Hopkins,” Nix said. “I had great mentors throughout. Dr. Davies encouraged me to go to NIH (the National Institutes of Health) for a year, which I did, and when I returned I was able to have plenty of research opportunities here at UAMS and network nationally, all through UAMS connections.”

Graham Reinhard, of Fort Smith, Ark., will complete his residency at UAMS and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in pediatrics.

“Arkansas has been good to me my whole life. I went to the University of Arkansas for undergrad, went to high school here, grew up here – it’s where I want to stay and give back,” Reinhard said.

With an in-state tuition for the 2016-2017 academic year of $29,204, many Arkansans pursuing careers in medicine see the value in a quality education at that price and chose to complete medical school at UAMS. One of UAMS’ goals is to inspire doctors to stay in Arkansas for their careers, particularly those in family medicine.

Current UAMS students come from 73 out of the state’s 75 counties. The program ranks second in the nation at retaining medical school and residency program graduates in the state, and 58 percent of practicing physicians in Arkansas are UAMS graduates. More than two thirds of Arkansas’ 75 counties include federally designated Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas. For five out of the last nine years, UAMS has ranked among the top 10 Doctor of Medicine programs in the nation for the number of graduates who chose family medicine.