Students shouldn’t have to pay to suffer through medical school

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Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Unsurprisingly, physicians are ranked as the world’s most respected professionals. Naturally, the individuals that we entrust with our well-being should be held in the highest regard. Not only do we commonly portray them as perfectly magnanimous and self-sacrificing, but they are also perceived to be wealthy and capable of living extravagant lifestyles.

However, their prestige comes with a price. Becoming a physician is one of the most arduous career paths. After completing 8 years of college and medical school, candidates have to enroll in a residency program and obtain a license before being able to practice. From medical school alone, students can accumulate nearly $200,000 in student loan debt.

To combat this financial struggle, a handful of medical schools have been offering full rides to its students. Recently, Cornell’s medical school decided to offer full scholarships for those that qualify for financial aid instead of advertising student loans. Medical schools across the nation should follow suit and absolve student debt to ease the process for prospective physicians.

Medical school is one of the most stressful times in a prospective physician’s life. Classes are intense, and students are expected to learn an absurd amount of information in a relatively short period of time. The nascent “culture of perfection” — the need to be flawless or risk criticism from peers — only exacerbates the issue. Due to the time crunch, some students have even begun skipping lecture to learn material faster.

Mental health is also a serious concern among medical students. A study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that that, while in medical school, 27 percent of students were depressed or exhibited depressive symptoms, while 11 percent reported ideations of suicide. With all these academic stressors, it’s unrealistic to expect most medical students to work full time or even part-time. However, a lack of income creates an additional financial stressor — such as a perpetually growing debt — that can further deteriorate one’s mental state and ability to succeed.

After medical school, prospective physicians enter residency, where they are assigned a specialty and begin working under a physician’s supervision. However, since they are not yet licensed, residents are only paid around $60,000 a year. Considering that residents can spend up to 80 hours a week in the hospital, prospective physicians are minimally compensated for their time and effort.

Compounded with student loan debt, it’s not surprising that residents have a slew of financial problems as well. Dr. Farzon Nahvi, an emergency room physician from New York City, saw his student loan debt increase over the few years he spent in residency despite living frugally.

Even when prospective physicians leave their residencies and become licensed practitioners, financial security evades them. Physicians do make a lot of money; a primary care physician makes an average of around $237,000 a year and specialists make an average of $341,000 a year. However, after years of living with growing debt, it’s still difficult to pay it off.

Dr. Nahvi still struggles to make his monthly payments of $3,000 and is unable to purchase a house. Among his colleagues, one moved in with her mother to manage her student loans and another was unable to get married due to his debt.

The individuals that make it through the grueling process to ensure the well-being of the nation shouldn’t have to compromise their welfare to get there. By eliminating student debt for medical students, we can reduce the stress that future physicians will face and potentially improve the quality of patient care.

Kevin Hu is a sophomore physiology and neurobiology major. He can be reached at kevxhu@gmail.com.

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