Needed: Cure for soaring cost of medical school

Newly minted doctors are graduating with record levels of debt, including the son of Fed chief Ben Bernanke.

By Aimee Picchi Apr 12, 2013 2:42PM

Image: Medical doctor (© John Arborgast / Photodisc Red/Getty Images)When the challenges facing the medical industry come up, one doesn't normally think of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. But he illustrated a stark reality awaiting would-be doctors when he testified before Congress that his son is on pace to graduate from medical school with a whopping $400,000 in loans. 


Bernanke's son isn't unusual. The median education debt for 2012 medical school graduates was $170,000 in 2012, compared with $13,469 in 1978, according to Bloomberg, which adds that in today's dollars, the 1978 amount would be $48,000.


The huge cost -- and resulting debt -- of medical school may be dissuading some students from enrolling, the story says. That's coming at a sensitive time for America's health care industry, which is facing a shortage of doctors just as an aging population needs them most. 


With the average four-year cost of medical school amounting to $278,455 for private schools and $207,868 for public universities, some lower-income students in particular may find the expense daunting. 


"You probably are pricing out a whole segment of lower-income kids that have the ability and the intellect to succeed," Ami Bera, a California congressman and a physician, told Bloomberg. He said he left medical school in 1991 with less than $10,000 in loans. 


Most medical students finance their studies with loans, given that very few full scholarships are available and grants usually pay for only a portion of the cost. But those loans don't come cheap, with graduate students paying as much as 7.9% on federal loans, far higher than the U.S. 10-year Treasury note's 1.78%, Bloomberg points out. 


The country is facing a shortage of 90,000 doctors in 10 years, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Some specialties, such as urology and thoracic surgery, will see a decrease of physicians, while the number of Americans over the age of 65 is projected to grow by one-third, the group says. On top of that, doctors themselves are getting older, with one-third projected to retire in the next decade. 


The reasons behind the surging tuition might be simply the rising cost of maintaining a functioning hospital, according to the 2x2 Project, a site that's sponsored by the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.


But the prices that hospitals and other health care centers charge are outrageous, with X-rays and drug injections subjected to huge markups, according to a Time magazine report by Steven Brill that was highlighted by my colleague Kim Peterson.


Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer (PFE) are spending less money on wooing doctors, a practice that's come under fire for driving up the costs of drugs, as my colleague Jonathan Berr wrote on Friday.


Regardless of the cause, patients may not have much patience when they find it harder than ever to get an appointment with a physician. 


Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.


More on moneyNOW

28Comments
Apr 12, 2013 4:24PM
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The cost has nothing to do with the shortage of doctors in this country.  There are a limited number of slots for medical school and there is absolutely no shortage of applicants.  My niece finished school this May and starts her residency in pediatrics at a hospital in June.  She has a masters degree in medicine, was an excellent student as an undergrad and she had a very hard time gaining admittance.  She actually went on to get the masters after she was rejected, then worked doing research in a hospital for a year before she could gain admittance because there are so many applying compared to the number of slots in school.  Until they ramp up the medical schools to train more doctors the cost is not a relevant factor. 

Apr 12, 2013 7:30PM
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I see most people here commenting have very little knowledge about the practice of medicine, but have a huge envy for money here.  The business (and practice) of medicine is so regulated by the government(s) and with it the pay.  The stress of saving lives, running a small businesses, regulatory compliance, hours of work, board certifications, liability and law suites (just to name a few responsibilities) the level of intellect, preparation and discipline they need, they should be paid well.  Most American doctors are well into their 30s before they make a dime.  They average doctor has been in school from age 5 all the way up to age 35.  The self confidence they excude is there for the patients sense of security as much as it is there for them to face the ever present dangers of getting it wrong.  My advice to anyone who thinks they make too much money, follow them for 24 hours, see if you can keep up.  Or better yet, ask your auto mechanic if he'll change your fan belt with the engine running.  Or maybe put into prospective that $150 ticket you purchased to a football game watching players making $25,000,000 a year. Oh and should I add drinking a 12 pack, eating fast-food between cigarettes. Quit complaining and grow up!
Apr 12, 2013 6:24PM
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I can't believe that someone like Ben Bernanke hasn't helped to fund his son's education.  I teach in a medical school, and most parents with means do provide their children with some help.  His son's bill isn't $400,000 just for medical school.  This bill also has to include undergraduate debt also.
Apr 12, 2013 7:51PM
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Why do we have so many imports as so called doctors in Bullymerica?  What good is a so called doctor if you can't understand what he or she is saying?  One I went to was from Pakistan and she mutterd "you jist wastin my time ifn yu aint gooa do wut i sa!"  She wasted my time and money! Went to another. He was worse.  I think he needed psychological help. Counldn't understand him.  Even his office was disorganized.  Lost patients records!  Waited two weeks for lab results.  Finally had to get them from hospital.  His excuse for not calling was "diddn't hav nuttin to tail ye...didn't shw whut I wuz lokin fer"  I said "don't you think a 30 second phone call would have eased oiur mind?"  I hope he goes back to his country.  Maybe they can understand that brat.
Apr 12, 2013 6:26PM
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It would be interesting to compar the current salaries vs the salaries in 1978.  I suspect that many are making way more now.  A starting salary of $300-400,000 grand for speciallist should go a long way to paying that $400 G debt. That is a big part of the current helath care cost issue.  Take veterinarians they graduate with debt of close to 200 G and start at around 70 G after 8 years of college.  Much more difficult to survive on that.  It is likely that the debt to salary ratio is much better  for doctors then for other professions out there.
Apr 15, 2013 12:29AM
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Get the AMA out of the picture and allow anyone who has the ability to become a doctor.  Also, Americans are paying 4 times more per person than any people on the planet for medical care and yet we are two years behind Cuba in life expectancy.   Mexicans live just two years less than we do and yet their medical costs per person is 1/10 of ours.   In Japan an MRI runs $75.00 and the company makes money.   It is time the American people stop being saps and outsource.  Insist that your state pass a law forcing your insurance company to negotiate with you as to where in the world you want you operation or medical care.   That happens watch the costs drop in the U.S.
Apr 12, 2013 7:42PM
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Alzheimer's disease is expected to double or triple by 2050.  I'm sure it will.  Pills are destroyng the minds of Americans.  I fully believe the memory loss of many Americans is due to side effects of pills.  And, I think the whitecoats know it.  But, I"ve never seen a "study" to show that and I'm sure if one did, it would secretly be "classified" and nobody would ever know.  Everyone forgets some.  But, the destruction of the mind is due, in part and a large part, to the legal drug lords concoctions.  We always hear how illegal drugs destroy the mind.  We never hear about the legal drugs that destroy the mind.  But, they do!  I feel very sure of that.  If you want to live a long and healthly life, eat right, exercise and STAY AWAY from doctors as much as possible.  Pills are like little snakes! But, by the time you notice something is wrong, the lifetime damage is usually done.  Trust me on that one!!
Apr 12, 2013 4:14PM
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Solutions are very simple, fair, but will never happen: cut all federally-funded government health-care and education programs. Every. Single. One. Watch how quickly medical providers and medical schools lower their prices because they no longer have patients and students who are able to use government cheese to pay. And stop treating people over 80 who have 6 months or less to live. Never gonna happen, though. Even Rush Limbaugh wouldn't go that far.
Apr 12, 2013 6:39PM
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I'm not shedding any tears for med school grads.  My friends daughter just graduated from med school as a general practitioner.  Her salary after 1 year is already $250k a year.  So.....don't whine at me about your big school bills.
Apr 12, 2013 7:36PM
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I used to think doctors were somebody.  I thought they were super smart.  And, worst of all, I thought they really were there to help people. And, I admit some are.  But, now it is a mess and I believe the sorriest government of the world, that one in Washington, D.C. is behind all this mess.  Medical costs are vastly high.  But, here is the worst part.  The legal drugs lords are winning the war.  You go to doc, get prescp....prescrip causes side effectrs...more docs, more pills, more side effects...It spirals!  And, a pill cannot cost ten dollars to make! And, 100?  That is extortion of the worst sort.  Whitecoats are not there to heal you.  Look at all the "ask your doctor" ads!  Inusrance ads!  Don't tell me that is not intertwined with the CONgressional extortion of funds.  Chins, please take us over!!!
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Fire the medical school doctors and hire Cuban trained Doctors who are working as waiters at restaurants as those jobs pay more than being a doctor in Cuba.

 

Problem solved.

 

This would lower cost of tuition to about oh say ten doctors per 1,000 students pay of doctors about $20,000 a year building rent about $1,000 per student let's say another $20,000 for two admins types to take money and buy supplies and $500 a year for supplies.

 

roughly med school would only cost about $1,600 per year.

 

that was easy.

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