When Robert Cooper was growing up in Edgewood, Texas, he liked his neighborhood family doctor so much that by the time he got into medical school in 2010, he already knew he wanted to go into primary care.
"I used to always go to our family practice physician, so that's what I knew," says Cooper, 26, who also values "the flexibility of being able to work in a rural area."
It didn't hurt, either, that primary care doctors are so in demand that his medical school is speeding them into the workforce. The program Cooper enrolled in, an accelerated option at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine in Lubbock, will allow him to get his medical degree in three years rather than the usual four, provided he commits to primary care.
[Find out if primary care is right for you.]
"We have a shortage of physicians, particularly in primary care," says John Prescott, chief academic officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., which projects the nation will have 45,000 too few primary care doctors by 2020. "This is one step forward in helping to alleviate that. I think we'll see other schools looking closely at this."
The school of medicine at Mercer University in Savannah, Ga., already offers a similar three-year M.D. degree, and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, Pa., offers a three-year program for osteopaths who have chosen family medicine and general internal medicine.
[Read about changes in medical residency training.]
How do you cram four years of intense learning into three? At Texas Tech and Mercer, the key is shortening the clinical rotations medical students experience to get trained in other specialties and focusing instead most of their real-world experience on family medicine.
"One of the reasons we can do this is a lot of the fourth year is elective—trying to decide what you want to go into, and doing audition rotations around the country," says Steven Berk, dean of the Texas Tech medical school. "The various competencies that are normally covered in the fourth year we cover in eight weeks."
That condensed schedule offers financial rewards, notes Robert Pallay, residency director and chair of family medicine at Mercer. Students "pay one year less of tuition, which saves $40,000 to $50,000," he says. "They get out a year earlier, so rather than making $50,000 as a resident, they [may] end up earning $200,000-plus as a regular doctor."
[Learn more about alternative routes to medical school.]
Add in potential state and federal tuition grants that are often offered to students who commit to primary care, and "we figure it comes out to a quarter of million dollars in savings to them," Pallay says. Berk estimates his school's fast-track med students end up only $22,000 in debt vs. $109,000 if they were to choose a conventional four-year program.
That said, accelerated programs can be especially intense, and may not be for everyone. At Texas Tech, fast-trackers sacrifice their summer break after the first year, for example, to attend an eight-week course in preparation for a second-year clerkship in family medicine.
Says Cooper, who is now completing his final year: "You really have to buckle down and focus."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.