A lot has been written about how student loan culture is affecting medical students. Cost of medical school tuition is so high that students are forced to take out incredibly large loans in order to complete their training. There are a couple of areas in particular where high tuition and the accompanying student loans are creating a dearth among the physician workforce. The first is that less and less medical students can afford to become primary care physicians. The second is that minority students are less likely to become doctors at all. Neither of these areas are ones in which our society can afford to lose doctors. Fortunately combining the right repayment plan with a plan to manage debt can potentially solve both problems.
According to the Medical School Student Association, medical school tuition has increased by 163% in private schools and by 312% in public schools over the last 20 years. This is unprecedented. To make matters worse, doctors salaries have not seen a parallel rise, which means the percentage of their income doctors must spend solely on debt management is steadily increasing with no end in sight.
Primary Care Physicians
Primary care physicians are more in demand than ever before. It’s because medical students are now more likely to choose specialties that involve expensive testing procedures, serving affluent communities, than they are to become family doctors. With 86% of medical students paying $1,500 to $2,100 per month for their student loans, doctors have a strong incentive to work in specialties that serve wealthy patients rather than practicing in underserved communities for less money.
Minority students compose one of the most important demographics where potential students are most commonly and increasingly lost; tragically, the number one reason is cost. There is considerable evidence indicating that diversity among the physician workforce contributes tremendously to getting underserved populations access to healthcare. This includes uninsured patients, Medicare patients and patients of low socio-economic status.
As humans we are wired to be biased. Much as we may try to govern our judgements, it’s a flaw we’re all subject to. We experience it our personal lives and in our work; and so often our biases live so deeply in our subconscious that it’s an incredible challenge to even become of aware of them. But we must strive to become aware of them. Our biases surround us and inhabit everything we make – every product, every system engineered by human invention. Only by illuminating the nature of these biases can we make informed choices about how we really feel and how we choose to live. One thing that we certainly can’t afford to have in place is a financial bias against much needed physicians.
With the introduction of programs like Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment plans, high tuition and fear of debt does not need to stop motivated students from becoming doctors or from pursuing the avenues of medicine to which they are most drawn. Student debt, at least for the time being, is a fact of higher education; but thanks to recent government efforts as well as those of independent organizations working to help students optimize their debt, there’s no reason to let student loans stand in the way of doctors achieving their full potential.