Does Free Medical School Decrease Social Justice?


The hottest medical school in the country right now is the New York University School of Medicine thanks to the gift of a generous benefactor that promises to make medical school free for all current and future medical students.  The news was met with elation from the medical community of physicians that groans frequently about student debt loads routinely north of $200,000 upon matriculation.  Not surprisingly, the technocrat class of public health experts and economists did not share in the jubilation.  The smarter-than-the-rest-of-us empiricists are, after all, trained to think in terms of social justice and net benefits to society.   The needs of medical students are far down the list of priorities when forming this social justice utopia.

Contemporary arguments for social justice in some form or the other trace their roots to the philosopher John Rawls and his 1971 magnum opus – “A Theory of Justice”.  In words that would infuse liberal thought for a generation, Rawls laid out a blueprint for a just society by proposing a thought experiment called “the original position”.  This was a hypothetical scenario where a group of people are asked to form the rules of a society which they will then occupy. The catch is that the people making the decision do so behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ not knowing the disadvantages conferred by any number of attributes (age, sex, gender, intelligence, beauty, etc. ) they may be reincarnated with. Rawls posited that under conditions in which there was a possibility of being born as a disadvantaged member of society, social and economic inequalities would be arranged to be of greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society.

At first glance, it would seem that the objections to tuition-free medical school rest on a social justice framework that does not seem to comport with gifts to the soon-to-be-wealthy.  After all, the $200,000 investment for medical school pales in comparison to the lifetime earnings of the average physician who is assured at least a six-figure income in seeming perpetuity. But it is not entirely clear that one has to even combat Rawlsian ideals to rebut the social justice do-gooders with strong opinions on how other people should spend their money.  A Rawlsian framework never intended that everyone in society would be able to achieve the same outcome regardless of starting position.  Rawls actually went out of his way to argue that inequalities were justified in society as long as the operating rules served to raise the position of those worst off in society.  A rising tide should lift all boats – the rich may become richer, as long as the poor become richer as well.

In this context, a prize that can be partaken just as easily by rich and poor would seem to be just what would emerge from behind the veil of ignorance.  Unfortunately, in 2018 it is not enough to ensure access to opportunities, everyone must get a prize.  So it has come to pass that all social prescriptions are now evaluated based on their ability to improve racial and socioeconomic diversity. At the moment, about 6% of medical students are black, and 5% are Hispanic. This is a problem, we are told because this is not representative of the nation as a whole. Why one may wonder?  In a field where lives depend on quick thinking, experience, and expertise, it would seem that the least important traits in a physician would be the color of their skin, their gender, or race.

Since we live in a world where nothing escapes quantification, researchers routinely try to find the elusive needle that will tell us once and for all of the overriding importance of diversity.  And so we are treated to the spectacle of esteemed researchers at even more esteemed institutions crunching data to see if patient mortality has anything to do with physician gender.  I confess I would never have embarked on a study even if I had the ability because I think its a dumb question with answers that are wholly irrelevant. Patients taken care of by a male physician may end up seeing a female colleague in the practice for an urgent medical problem or vice versa. The attending in the ICU may be male, but the senior resident could be female, and every 12 hours a different nurse is at the bedside. Who exactly owns the patient? Is there really one gender we can point to that controls the outcome that befalls the patient? Even if it was possible to definitively detect a difference that exists along gender or race, would it not be more valuable to identify the elements that lead to better outcomes and emulate them as a group?

Nuance, however, doesn’t translate to New York Times headlines and these questions did not deter these plucky researchers who used Medicare spending as a proxy to attribute hospitalized patients to physicians by gender. Since each visit by an attending physician with a patient who has Medicare generates a billing claim, hospitalizations were assigned to the gender with more billing.  51% to be exact. To clarify: On any given hospitalization, if you the patient saw a female physician for 51% of the time, your hospitalization was deemed to have been managed by the female gender. A woman’s touch, in this case, resulted in 0.4% lower 30-day mortality – enough for the researchers to posit that a medical system devoid of men would mean 32,000 fewer deaths every year. But before we launch a pogrom for male physicians in service of the greater good, consider that this conclusion derives from a large 1.5 million patient observational study that describes a correlation.

A large sample size is good for finding small but important effect sizes, but importantly also increases the chances of finding spurious correlations.  And correlations without plausible underlying mechanisms may well lead one to the highly correlated conclusion that marriage rates in Kentucky have something to do with the number of people who drowned after falling out of a fishing boat. So the fact that no one can pinpoint a clear mechanism to explain how the difference between 32,000 patients living or dying boils down to male physicians being involved 49% of the time is a major problem.  So even if one accepts as plausible that the dictates of biology mean women are better healers than men, one that has to accept as feasible that an extra u1% involvement in any given hospitalization is lifesaving.  The Virgin Mary herself would struggle to be this effective.

Exposing the thin evidence for prioritizing diversity over all else would be a full-time job, but unfortunately, this house of cards of evidence is how we get the smartest folks in the room uniformly opposing tuition-free medical school on the grounds it won’t promote diversity.

Apparently, the United Colors of Benetton advertisement that the current crop of United States physicians could star in isn’t diverse enough for the champions of diversity.  Almost 40% of physicians come from the Indian subcontinent and half of all physicians being trained right now are women.  Increasing the percentage of under-represented minorities in medicine will do precious little to quench the massive outcome gap that currently exists between rich and poor zip codes – the roots of which are deep and go well beyond conscriptive social policy that would put a physician to match your color/race and sexual orientation in every neighborhood.

And even so, the problem of implementing policies to engineer the right kind of diversity necessarily contradicts the society that would be formed behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance.  If going to medical school is akin to winning entry into the top 1%, does punching winning tickets based on race and color rather than merit automatically follow?  There is a fundamental truth that no p-value or 10 million strong study will overturn – your health may one day require an astute ER physician who chooses to push for an admission to the hospital even though the labwork looks ok, an inquisitive internist who puts together a large cardiac silhouette on an X-Ray with low voltage on an ECG to diagnose fluid collecting around the heart, and a diligent cardiologist who will get out of bed at 4 am to to stick a seven inch needle into the fluid cavity around your heart.  And this little vignette is far and away the easy stuff.  The point is that the sarcoma, the leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm, or the ruptured coronary plaque care not about the socioeconomic status of the hands that will be called to heal.

While there are many in society that will do the job, there are relatively few that you want to do the job.  The profession of medicine should wallow in elitism like pigs wallow in mud.  Make medical schools harder to get into, not less.  The goal is Seal Team Six, not some band of nincompoops.  In this context NYU is discharging its responsibilities well – in the minutes it took for the story of the gift to go viral, they went from being middle of the pack to becoming a destination of choice for elite college graduates.

The sad (though understandable) part is that it took a middle of the road school to fire the first shot.  Much higher profile schools – think Harvard, Stanford – always have had the opportunity and ability to do what NYU did, but instead chose the virtuous path of allowing medical students to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt.

Hubris lives large in this space. Hubris to think medical student debt makes for a more just society. Hubris to believe a better ratio of underrepresented minorities in medical schools will solve society’s ills.  Hubris to think to know the distribution of specialties medical students should choose.

It turns out the veil of ignorance isn’t a theoretical construct after all.  The overthinking class live behind it, creating fantastical worlds comfortably insulated from reality. A truly just society emerges from rejecting the collectivist principles that spring forth from this merry band of technocrats. The gift to NYU from a private benefactor is a response to an important signal from the physician community. It may not be what the economists want, but it is just what the doctor ordered.

Anish Koka is a Cardiologist in Philadelphia. He can be found trolling on twitter @anish_koka

5 replies »

  1. What are we encouraging here? People getting no strings gifts who will pursue lucrative careers which add to the unaffordability of health care for the rest of us? Would it not have been better to require service at least for a period in underserved rural health care?

    Why not give free tuition to future Wall Street Traders? How many of these med students come from well off families who already enjoy being boot strapped by their parents?

    This is not sitting well for me – too many questions.

  2. ” And In general we’re all better off if the brightest folks choose medicine. ”

    I used to believe that the brightest folks were the best to choose. Now I think that other skills and traits matter also. The ability to work with other people (patients and staff), to accept criticism, good work habits, commitment, flexibility (just to name a few) also matter a lot. If i have the choice between the guy who was 99th percentile on the echo boards but no people skills, and the guy who did 80th percentile and does have good people skills I know who I am taking.

    More broadly, I think this is mostly a good thing and it is pretty silly to quibble about social justice because of this. If it means that some students can choose their specialty w/o concerns about future debt, that is fine, but not sure how many really choose based upon that metric anyway.


  3. Not sure. All based on these paradigms where everyone fits neatly in theory. No reason good specialists can’t do primary care for instance. And In general we’re all better off if the brightest folks choose medicine. If they choose to become pcps good.. if they choose to subspecialize, that’s good to.

  4. I think medical education is going to become so difficult, content-wise, that it’ll become like making graduate education in mathematics free. It won’t mean a thing. We are going to have to be facile with molecular biology, statistics, biochemistry, drug design.,.and even if the tuition is free, a lot of folks just won’t want to pursue such a scientific “stem” course of work: Crispr/cas9; Car/T cells; transposons; si RNA; Besides, it appears the money is going to be constrsined as regards salaries and income as we head toward value—whatever that is.

  5. To be clear, Ken Langone’s gift is intended to cover medical school tuition only, not room and board which at NYU will average $29,000 per year. Also, my understanding is that one of his motivations is to make it easier for newly minted physicians to choose primary care over a more lucrative specialty because they won’t be encumbered by so much debt when they graduate. Isn’t that a good thing on balance for both the healthcare system generally and patients more specifically?