The December issue of Money Magazine has an article about a young couple, both in the residency stage of their medical training. Meg and Chris are 28 and 29, and happily expecting their first child. From the details in the article, it appears that they are a pretty frugal couple, living with few extravagances or extras. They each work about 70 hours a week, and their combined income is about $91,000/year. For 70+ hour weeks, that’s not a lot of cash. The couple also has $483,000 in student loans. Meg had no student loans for her undergrad schooling, and Chris owed only $17,000 after finishing his masters. But medical school gave them a combined debt of nearly half a million dollars. Meg hopes to work part-time as a pediatrician, so that she can be with their baby more – but that could mean that her salary might only be $40,000/year. Chris, with anesthesia as his specialty, could earn up to $250,000/year, but those days are on the somewhat distant horizon.
With all the talk about national health care and eliminating waste and excess spending in our broken health care system, some people assume that doctors are overpaid. On first glance, $250,000/year for an anesthesiologist does seem extravagant. But if we want to cut back on medical spending, we need to take a closer look at how doctors are trained and who pays for their education. The vast majority of new doctors are saddled with huge student loans. And almost without exception medical residents work ridiculous hours for very low pay (Chris and Meg work for about $12/hour if you look at their salaries and the number of hours they work). Once a doctor has been practicing for 20 years, the picture is obviously going to be rosier – higher pay, better hours that come with more seniority, and medical school loans probably paid off. But the price to break into the profession is a steep. According to a current US News and World Report listing, the average medical school loan is now $100,000. Closer to home, Graduates of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center can expect to have over $118,000 in medical school loans.
If we want to cut health care spending, perhaps one of the things we need to look at is how we train doctors. If new doctors didn’t graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and work for peanuts for their first few years after med school, maybe they wouldn’t need $250,000 salaries.