he next generation of doctors knows the pain of America’s widening income gap well. More medical students are graduating debt-free — many likely coming from wealthier families — but those from lower-income backgrounds face higher debts heading into their residences.
New research finds that the average debt that medical school graduates carry has climbed from $161,739 in 2010 to $179,000 in 2016. (Figures are adjusted to 2016 dollars.)
Yet fewer students are facing debt at all. That same six-year period saw the number of students graduating with no debt increase by 67 percent. The authors of the letter, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, say that a sharp reduction in scholarship funding for graduates without debt signals that these students might be from wealthy backgrounds.
Combined, those findings indicate that students from lower-income upbringings disproportionally bear the burden of rising medical school debt.
“The costs of becoming a physician are incredibly high,” said Dr. David Asch, executive director of the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation. “We may be putting that upward mobility out of reach of people at a time when we want to reverse that trend by having a more representative workforce.”
The research letter also breaks down the debt incurred by specialty, visualized below. The data shows that graduates specializing in emergency medicine, radiology, and psychiatry carried the highest debt after medical school. Meanwhile, young physicians going into radiology, dermatology, and neurology saw the odds of graduating debt-free grow the most.
University of Rochester School of Medicine student Justin Grischkan, one of the study’s authors, said little research to date has looked at the distribution of medical debt among students. He also said further study is needed to determine whether higher debts influence a student’s choice of specialty. For now, Asch said students are still likely to choose a specialty based on potential income made in the future.
The authors also tell STAT that, as future research examines the ways debt impacts specialty choice, medical schools must also consider how to lower the costs of getting a physician into the workforce.
“If we reduce those costs, everyone wins,” Asch said.