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The 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.


Talia Bronshtein/STAT Source: JAMA

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.

Talia Bronshtein/STAT Source: JAMA

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.

  • The truncated bar graph really does wonders at misrepresenting the data. According to the graph, graduates specializing in emergency medicine incur an average of ~$195,000 of debt. This is only about 5% more than the second highest category – graduates specializing in radiology who incur an average of ~$185,000 of debt. Yet, the truncated bar graph makes it look closer to 30% more. And don’t even get me started on that first bar…

  • Why are the rich becoming doctors? Because it can generate more money. The medical schools should start looking at capable poor people and help them get a degree. Then there is a chance that they will serve the poor. I never heard of a rich doctor trying to help the poor.

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