Medicine’s privilege gap

Have doctors become increasingly removed from the everyday struggles of their patients, especially patients who occupy the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder?

A letter to the editor in the July issue of Academic Medicine raises some thought-provoking questions about a “privilege gap” that’s opening up in medicine.

It starts at the very beginning, with the selection process into medical school, writes Dr. Farzon Nahvi, an emergency medicine resident at New York University’s Bellevue Hospital:

Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges show that over 60% of medical students come from families in the top quintile of household income, with only 20% coming from families who earned in the bottomĀ three quintiles. Similarly, the median family income of American medical students is over $100,000. In other words, the average medical student comes from the upper 15% of America.

This is anything but reflective of the patient population, Dr. Nahvi goes on to explain: “They are all of America: rich, poor and in between.”

And it has an impact, he maintains:

The unfortunate consequence of this is that patients sometimes struggle to be understood by well-meaning but, ultimately, privileged doctors who sometimes cannot relate to patients of other backgrounds.

Being privileged does not necessarily make a physician incapable of understanding the daily lives of his or her patients, of course. And many physicians resent (often rightfully so) the stereotypes that portray them as money-grubbing, golf-playing, Beamer-driving plutocrats who consider themselves above the masses.

Yet the statistics cited by Dr. Nahvi don’t lie. And they’re a problem for a society in which the health gap between the well off and the not so well off has been extensively documented. As Dr. Nahvi points out, how can doctors be aware of the issues their low-income patients face – unable to afford prescription drugs, for instance, or unable to take time off work to get to the pharmacy – when “it often doesn’t occur to the more privileged that such issues even exist”?

If medicine in the U.S. is becoming a bastion of privilege, it’s probably because it increasingly takes privilege to survive the rigors and costs of becoming a doctor.

The cost of a medical education is a significant burden for aspiring doctors; a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges puts the median amount of medical school debt at $170,000 for the Class of 2012 (and this doesn’t include any debt students may have accumulated from their preceding four years of college).

Then there’s the protracted training time to consider: four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school and, at a minimum, three years of residency before doctors actually start earning real money. Once they’ve arrived, they can start acquiring the trappings of an upper-middle-class lifestyle – but this is small comfort to the bright young high-schooler from a low-income family who dreams of being a doctor but lacks the financial wherewithal to even get a foot in the door.

One could also argue that the medical school admission process itself tends to favor students with the “right” kind of background, i.e. those who already possess strong socioeconomic advantages.

So what’s the solution? Dr. Nahvi writes:

The stopgap fix is to better train all students to deal with all types of patients. A true long-term solution, however, is to steer more representative slices of America – individuals from all income levels – into medicine. There are many ideas for how to do this, from special recruitment strategies to arrangements for financial aid. Fundamentally though, for change to occur, admission committees need to recognize the importance of getting more middle- and low-income students into our medical education system.

Doing so won’t be easy, because it’s not just about money. Many other ingredients come into play: a solid grade school and high school education, parents and teachers who encourage careers in medicine and hold aspiring students to high expectations, and even local role models who can show young people that someone like them can successfully become a doctor.

There doesn’t seem to be much public discussion about how to narrow the privilege gap in medicine. Since part of the solution likely will lie at the community level, maybe this needs to change.

3 thoughts on “Medicine’s privilege gap

  1. My brother just completed his third year of medical school.

    Because of how rigorous the content is, he studies every day when he gets home for hours. He can’t have a job while he’s a student — for four years.

    So that’s another aspect of how the process screens out nonprivileged people. If my brother didn’t have a spouse with a job, how would he manage to not work for four years? All the while paying for living expenses plus racking up debt to pay for school?

    Who can afford to not work for four years?

    • Good point, Kari. I would guess most medical students are subsidized by their family/significant other during their training, at least to some extent. For students who come from a family with limited means, this support wouldn’t be available.

      Communities seem able to raise funds for all kinds of causes. Maybe there should be an “adopt a medical student” program to make this a more viable career choice for lesser-privileged students.

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