The staggering cost of a medical education

Medical students traded the classroom and the anatomy lab last week for the halls of power in Washington, D.C. Their mission: to issue a plea to Congress for help with the crushing financial burden that medical school has become.

You can hear a group of students discussing their lobbying efforts with MedPage Today in this video interview. And here’s the briefing from the American Medical Association on loan relief for medical students.

By the time they complete their training, American medical students are staggering under a debt load that would make most of us cringe.

A college education nowadays is expensive by any measure. But consider the medical student: four years of undergraduate study, then four years of medical school, then at least three years of residency. Someone who wants to specialize further or complete a fellowship can add several more years of training.

The costs mount quickly. At the University of Minnesota Medical School, for instance, tuition and fees alone are $18,000 to $20,000 per year, plus another $1,500 in annual registration fees and $1,400 for books.

And the university is relatively affordable compared to, for instance, Harvard Medical School, where students last year could expect to pay more than $60,000 in just the first year for their tuition, fees and housing.

Debt from medical school has been rising faster than the cost of inflation, a task force for the American Medical Association found in a review of data from the past 20 years. Of the students who graduated from medical school in 2007, the average debt load was close to $140,000. Three-fourths of graduates owed at least $100,000.

Most people among the general public probably give little thought to the issue – but they should, because the cost of medical school is an invisible undertow that’s threatening to drag down the health care system.

Increasingly, future doctors are being forced to factor their educational debt into career decisions. Why be a family doctor in rural Minnesota, where they’ll likely make less money, when they can be an urban radiologist and earn significantly more?

Medical school debt isn’t the only consideration, of course. Demographics and personal goals and characteristics also play a role, as does a physician payment structure that’s weighted heavily in favor of procedure-based specialties. All things being equal, however, it’s hard for many medical students to remain idealistic when they’re facing the reality of enormous loan payments, coupled with lengthy training that delays their entry into the work force and their ability to start earning a salary.

Here’s another question: Is medicine increasingly becoming a career option only for those who can afford it?

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