The impact of tuition-free medical education


On Aug.16, the New York University School of Medicine announced it was offering full-tuition scholarships to all current and future students in its MD Program, regardless of need or merit – and that this policy also would apply to all matriculating students for the remainder of their medical school education at NYU.

Dr. Carol A. Bernstein is a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neurology at New York University and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Dr. Carol A. Bernstein

This bold initiative, they stated, was being instituted to simultaneously address the rising costs of medical education while still attracting the best and brightest to careers in medicine. In doing so, NYU School of Medicine (at which I hold a faculty appointment) became the first Top 10–ranked medical school in the nation to do so.

The symbolism of this announcement was noticeable: It was made at the medical school’s annual white coat ceremony, when each new student is presented with a white lab coat to mark the beginning of their medical education and training.

I count myself among many medical professionals and, indeed, others outside of medicine who have long advocated for free tuition for medical education, at the very least for those who have little or no means to pay. This particularly painful burden of debt often serves as a deterrent to many individuals who are considering a career in medicine or medical research.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 75% of all U.S. doctors graduated with some degree of debt in 2017. For many, the total is staggering: The median current debt for a graduating medical student is $202,000, with debt for those pursuing private medical school education rising as high as $300,000.

What might develop as a result of NYU’s decision and that of several other schools who have adopted debt-reduction policies?

First, that these programs might have a ripple effect at other medical schools, and create a movement for more students to earn a medical degree without incurring a crushing financial burden. Some other schools, like Columbia University, already have taken steps, such as replacing all student loans with scholarships creating a “debt-free” medical school. It would, indeed, be a powerful message if other schools developed similar creative solutions to this problem.

Second, there is hope that debt relief will encourage more medical school graduates to pursue careers in such specialties as family medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and geriatrics – because they will not have the additional financial pressure to pursue careers in more lucrative specialties in order to pay off debt. While many medical school graduates point to other issues like complex reimbursement as a greater deterrent to a specific specialty choice, I certainly hope that debt relief will have a positive effect in shifting the subspecialty paradigm.

Third, these actions might incentivize the federal government to establish an AmeriCorps-type program, in which the cost of a medical education is covered in return for a commitment to practice medicine for a period of time in underserved areas of the country. Such an approach also might motivate more medical school graduates to pursue careers in primary care specialties and help address some of the ongoing concerns related to the uneven distribution of physicians in the United States.

Another issue that often comes up is the impact of debt burden on “burnout” among medical students. This is a complex subject – and one that actually affects physicians beyond medical school and into residency training and medical practice.

There is no doubt that debt weighs heavily on the minds of medical students – and many enter medical school having sustained significant debt already from previous education in colleges and universities. However, the causes and influences on burnout in training are multifactorial. Earlier in medical school, the impact of debt obligation may be less apparent because of the other challenges students face when beginning medical school.

However, once trainees begin residency and fellowship training – and especially during early career years when many are beginning to have families – concerns about increasing financial strain become even more prominent. For many young physicians, already stressed by other extenuating factors, it would be a tremendous relief not to have that debt pursuing them.

As someone who teaches and mentors medical students and residents, I firmly believe that most students pursue a career in medicine for altruistic reasons: to help cure illness and take care of patients, to make new scientific discoveries, and to train the next generation of physicians who will follow them into the medical profession. Unfortunately, outside economic influences – such as increased competition among health care systems, shrinking reimbursements, loss of joy and meaning in medicine, increasing isolation of the caregiver from the patient and the significant cost of a medical education – lead many physicians to burn out prematurely and, for some, to leave the profession altogether.

By eliminating medical school debt, we can remove one of these constraints and make the practice of medicine as rewarding and gratifying as it has been in the past, and more accessible to those who truly wish to care for others.

Dr. Bernstein is a professor in the departments of psychiatry and neurology at New York University and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

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