Is Match Day outdated?

Match Day: It’s among the most memorable moments of medical school, a time when students, friends, family and faculty gather to open those coveted white envelopes. It’s the symbolic first step out of medical school and into residency, and a tradition that is beloved by many. Yet the matching process is viewed by those outside of the medical profession (and to some within it) as a very odd way to land a job. With the advent of email and other electronic communication, has Match Day become antiquated?

This question is one that has gained traction this application cycle in light of a recent snafu that allowed applicants to view what appeared to be their match result a few days early with just a few keystrokes.

On Monday, the National Resident Matching Program, or NRMP, posted on their website whether or not (but not where) students had matched. That day, a number of applicants figured out that within the NRMP website’s html code, they could find a singular program name — one that many believed was the place at which they had matched.

Then on Tuesday morning, the NRMP sent an email to all applicants stating that some people had been able to view their match results early — implying that the program name in the code was, indeed, their match result — and that the glitch had been fixed. But the damage was done. Although what is most likely the majority of applicants will wait a few more days until the official Match Day, many others already know where they are headed next year.

I scheduled an interview to speak with an NRMP representative in the hopes of hearing the organization’s side of the story. In the end, instead of providing an interview, they sent me a statement, which turned out to be virtually identical to the email all current applicants received. Here it is:

Earlier today the NRMP received notice that some Main Residency Match applicants were able to view their match results before the results were released if they right-clicked their Home Page in the Registration, Ranking, and Results (R3) system.   Immediately upon learning of this situation, we took steps to assure that this can no longer occur.  We are investigating to determine how such premature access was possible.

No applicant was able to view the results of another applicant, and no applicant was able to view the personal information of another applicant.  Match results for all applicants will be released on Friday, March 21, at 1:00 p.m. EDT.  Please be assured that the validity of Match results was not affected.

Were residency programs affected by the error? Not according to an email the NRMP sent to program directors, which stated that the breach only affected applicants, and that no program directors were known to have been able to access their list of incoming interns early. Gopal Yadavalli, the program director for Boston University’s internal medicine residency program, said that neither he nor the three other directors to whom he’d spoken had known about the issue until they received the NRMP email stating that it been resolved.

The events have certainly caused a stir; on Monday evening, a user of the medical forum Student Doctor Network posted the technique in a thread entitled, “Want to know where you matched?” According to the traffic posted by the site, the thread was viewed about 70,000 times in less than 24 hours; many users stated they had tried the technique and succeeded. One applicant also started a petition on change.org for the NRMP to release Match results early.

In any case, this snafu centers on many applicants’ biggest gripe about the application process: Why there is a five-day gap between finding out whether and where one matched in an age when most information can be disseminated and accessed nearly instantaneously? One reason is that this waiting period provides time for those who don’t match initially to find a spot through the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program, known as SOAP, making Match Day a celebration for as many applicants as possible.

“The suspense is killing me,” Yadavalli admits. “But for people who didn’t match, it’s a really important time. The reason they do it this way is so as many students as possible will have a place that they’re going on Match Day.” Programs also must wait a few days for their intern list after learning whether they have open positions, although they receive this information a day before applicants find out their results.

Still, the knowledge that match results have already been finalized is tantalizing. And to some, this is just the final insult in what is already a drawn-out process, with months and months of interviewing, ranking and, of course, waiting. In fact, Match Day has been progressively pushed back from Wednesday to Thursday to Friday over the past two decades.

“The system is antiquated because now we get emails, we have a computer, we check email — we even apply online,” says Gayatri Boddupalli, a fourth-year student at the Boston University School of Medicine who has matched into pediatrics. She equated having to wait an extra week to find out Match results to receiving snail mail with the information in it. “Like some other things in medicine, it’s very formal and antiquated,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean the ritual lacks value. It’s a way to bring together the community for a celebration, and many feel it can’t be replaced by the efficiency and immediacy of email.

Without Match Day, Boddupalli says, “The ceremony is lost, and [email] doesn’t bring people together the same way. All of your professors, classmates, family and friends are there together.”

I couldn’t find any colleagues who would admit they’d accessed their results early, but some users of the Student Doctor Network who did so said on the forum that the relief of knowing where they will spend their upcoming years far outweighs the fact that they won’t be surprised on Match Day. User Superman DO wrote, “I do not regret it. I do not like surprises anyways [sic].”

Whatever the future may hold for the Match, some applicants feel that it’s the waiting game that led to the website-related problem this year, and which could possibly threaten the integrity of the Match in the future.

“There are always going to be people who can work around the system,” Boddupalli said. By maintaining this timeline, she said, the NRMP “is setting itself up for something like this to happen again.”

Allison Bond is a medical student.  She can be reached on her self-titled site, Allison Bond.

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