The Real Problem With Med Student Debt

America might never agree on how much doctors deserve to earn. But there ought to be much less debate on the immense debt today’s medical students incur on the way to becoming doctors.

Few people are more aware of the stress of medical student debt than med students themselves, and there’s evidence that it affects our specialty and practice decisions later on down the line.

Enter this tweetchat. What began as a typical med student complaint about their debt load evolved into a provocative discussion about the underlying factors and potential solutions to the debt problem.

We’ve incorporated some notes explaining perhaps unfamiliar concepts, but otherwise this is the unvarnished product of a few med students procrastinating on a Sunday night.

Allan Joseph (AJ): The easiest way to tell if med-student debt is becoming an acute problem is if the demand for medical-school spots (easily measured by the number of applicants) is declining relative to the supply. That’s just not happening. In fact, the opposite is.

Karan Chhabra (KC): Standardized patients are actors paid by medical schools to act out clinical scenarios as we pretend to be doctors. They’ve been a useful component of clinical skills instruction for several decades—but their help isn’t free.

Josh Herigon (JH):
Even more than a decade ago when I was an undergraduate, the arms race between universities to build bigger and better facilities was well underway. Examples are not hard to find. Medical schools and academic medical centers are active participants in this trend. In 2007, my own institution announced a 10 year, $800 million expansion.

It’s not clear how capital improvement projects impact student tuition—administrators argue such projects are paid by dedicated capital funds, supported by the state, private donations, and/or bond initiatives. But, new facilities increase annual maintenance budgets and in the face of shrinking annual operating budgets, where do administrators make up the difference?

Again, the impact of capital projects is not obvious; what is obvious is that tuition rates have not decreased with these projects.

KC: Once an English major, always an English major. I’m trying to highlight the difference between prices and costs here–costs the amount of resources expended in providing a service (a pretty objective quantity), whereas prices are chosen by the seller (often based on the highest amount the market will tolerate). What I’m trying to say is, the rapidly rising price of medical education doesn’t necessarily reflect increases in its underlying costs.

JH: Federal support of education through student loan programs has increased access to higher education, but at what cost? Students are now insulated from the true price of their education. Their tuition payments are abstract numbers on a page they see once a semester. Financial aid counselors (in my limited experience) fail to explain the true financial impact of student loan payments.

Students are sold on the various deferment options, repayment plans, and forgiveness programs (most of which students won’t qualify for or will increase the overall cost through deferred interest payment). Even with sufficient explanation, it’s hard to fully conceptualize until you make that first payment.

AJ: Quite frankly, when physician unemployment is nonexistent and even the lowest-paid specialties average six-figure salaries, we don’t have a lot to whine about. The reasons to care about this, from a policy perspective, are the positive externalities (that don’t accrue to doctors) from having the best and brightest students enter medicine.

KC: Historically, doctors and hospitals have been paid separately for work that happens within a hospital’s walls. Doctors get a “professional fee” for their time and expertise, and hospitals get a “facility fee” for nursing care, materials, and all the other costs they incur in providing care. But in physician-owned surgical centers, doctors get both the professional fee and the facility fee.

It’s as lucrative as it sounds, though Obamacare plans to curb these arrangements.

JH: Moonlighting is when a doctor works outside their regularly scheduled hours (typically overnight, hence the name). Residents have historically done this during their training to supplement their paltry salaries. However, resident work hour restrictions are now decreasing this (moonlighting hours count against the total hours worked).

JH: I believe loan terms are the core issue and have been for a long time.

AJ: Most medical students borrow for medical school through the federal government’s Stafford loan program, as well as the Graduate PLUS program if needed. It looks like there’s a lot of repayment options, but when you dig into it…they’re all variations on very few themes.

KC: And the problem with that is, the incomes of med school grads have little in common with those of other grad schools. Most grads (law, business, PhD, etc.) see a healthy income soon after graduation, increasing steadily thereafter. Medical school grads look forward to 3–10 years of paltry income while they’re training, followed by a huge jump once they’re board-certified. Loan payments can be suspended while in training, but the debt still accrues interest at a rate equal to other graduate loans.

This makes little actuarial sense when you consider how low physicians’ default rate ought to be, compared with graduates of other programs. (Physicians’ unemployment rate is 0.8%, versus 2–3% for graduates of any graduate/professional school.) A tailor-made loan for medical students would adjust for physicians’ comparatively low incomes at graduation as well as their substantial, reliable incomes after residency.

Though I’m not an actuary, I think loans on these terms would be much more fair and affordable.

AJ: We joke about this, but it’s moderately surprising some enterprising financial firm hasn’t found a way to make this happen. (There’s probably a regulation about federal student debt that hampers it, but still.) More obviously, though, there’s room for policy changes to improve this system.

Karan Chhabra (@KRChhabra) is a student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Duke graduate who previously worked in strategic research for hospital executives.

Allan Joseph (@allanmjoseph) is a first year medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, where he is pursuing an MD/MPP.

Josh Herigon (@JoshHerigon) is a fourth year medical student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine with an extensive research background and deep interests in technology.

This post originally appeared at Project Millennial and mediio.

11 replies »

  1. I have a lot of issues with this argument.
    1. Medical schools should not be funded by the government, because that opens up the argument that all aspects of university study should be paid for by the government, and since a college degree is not necessary and is really a personal life-decision, it should be the student’s responsibility to pay for it. I do not believe we should rely on others to pay for us and we should take responsibilities for our own expenses.
    2. The government is in an incredible debt as it is, and it would irresponsible to ask for it to subsidize anything more. If it could afford to make $100 billion in cuts, that money should be used to cut the deficit.
    3. Another $30 billion in tax increases? If divided equally among all tax-payers, that would amount to nearly $400 per year that we would have to pay extra in taxes. If I was in teaching or business, I would not want to cut my meager salary by four hundred a year to pay for someone else’s education.
    4. I agree that $500 000 is a ludicrous amount to pay professors, but that is competitive pay. The professors would just get up and find a different university to work for if their pay was cut too much.
    5. Lastly, you mention national service. These med students always had the option to join the military and have them pay for their studies. If the students are taking out the loans themselves, they obviously don’t want any part of national service. Also, once medical school, internships, residencies, etc have been finished, they are expected to devote another few years of their lives to national service, away from their families and without professional career?


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  3. This might be too dreamy, but what is wrong with making medical school free?

    What is wrong with making all professional schools free?

    We could take about $100 billion from the bloated defense budget, add another $30 billion or so in a tiny income tax increase, and fund the colleges at a relatively spartan level. (no $500,000 professors)’

    We could apply another $50 billion to pay off existing medical student debt, if the doctor-beneficiaries would agree to some form of national service for a few years each.

    You can never defeat compound interest by soft measures. You need to wipe out debt root and branch.

    Bob Hertz, The Health Care Crusade

  4. Many primary care specialties are also 1) boring, 2) have ridiculous amounts of paperwork as well.

  5. No offense, sir, but medical students are human just like everyone else. No one will go into medicine and become physicians if the ROI is low. Six figure salaries have to be taken in context of a ridiculous amt. of debt >200,000 (and that’s for state schools) with interest.

  6. The primary care doc is woefully underpaid.

    Bring him/her up to an appropriate level and the CEO is only making 10x the primary care doc.

    Then he is probably worth it.

  7. From my background in health administration, the biggest problem with the costs of med school is that it discourages physicians from pursuing lower paying areas of medicine like family practice and internal medicine. Instead, many opt for more lucratives specialities. This has created a huge imbalance and shortage of primary care specialists in the health system.

  8. Well debt surely affects what specialty a med student goes into. This affects society in that all specialties are trying to find needs that they can fill. So, for example, an entrepreneurial dermatologist might buy a new laser for treatment of actinic keratoses instead of depending on the cheaper liquid nitrogen. Then, naturally, she must charge more. This is repeated ad infinitum and medicine gradually takes on a more expensive cast. … and we all pay eventually these higher prices brought about by the debt. So debt, in millions of tiny steps, changes how we practice medicine in ways not related to striving for increased quality.

  9. The CEO of United Health Group makes roughly 100x the pay of the average primary care physician. Someone argue to me that his value-add to society is worth it.

  10. “Quite frankly, when physician unemployment is nonexistent and even the lowest-paid specialties average six-figure salaries, we don’t have a lot to whine about. The reasons to care about this, from a policy perspective, are the positive externalities (that don’t accrue to doctors) from having the best and brightest students enter medicine.”

    I don’t want people entering medicine who are whining about their eventual six figure salaries. That would be part of the definition of “best.” People who are attracted to big business salaries should go into business, period.