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Opinion: Medical school debt — it doesn’t need to cost this much

Many medical school graduates find themselves facing a $300,000-$400,000 debt bill. No wonder there’s burnout and high stress

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Medical students recite the Hippocratic oath after the White Coat Ceremony at the University of Utah on Aug. 28, 2015.

Class of 2019 medical students recite the Hippocratic oath after the White Coat Ceremony at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Aug. 28, 2015.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The challenges facing health care providers have been well documented in recent years. The COVID-19 virus further amplified the stressors on these individuals and their systems. As is often the case, the reasons are complex and multifaceted.  

Accordingly, progress must be in the form of multiple solutions rather than a single panacea. One area often unrecognized and under-addressed for physicians, in particular, is the cost of medical education. One year of tuition at the University of Utah School of Medicine is approximately $35,000. Private school tuition is often in excess of $60,000 per year. These numbers do not include fees or living expenses. A typical graduate is now saddled with $300,000 or even $400,000 of student loan debt at the conclusion of their four-year training. That debt then compounds interest over the 3-7 subsequent years of residency training. The monthly payment for this debt is over $3,000 per month for 30 years. 

Although a doctor can expect good earning potential, this level of debt is a figurative millstone around their neck and a significant and underappreciated contributor to physician dissatisfaction and burnout. These factors disproportionately impact lower-earning primary care specialties and underserved rural areas. Speaking from personal experience, the extra hours I worked to pay my debt was a major contributor to my personal burnout and led me to leave my clinical practice in rural Richfield, Utah, after 15 years.  

The unfortunate aspect of this reality is it is unnecessary. The resources exist in current university and state budgets, as well as philanthropic sources and scholarships to make medical school affordable rather than exorbitant. As our legislature is now reconvening I call on stakeholders, including but not limited to legislators, university presidents, deans, educators and civic leaders to prioritize and invest in health care providers and their education. This is imperative for the future of health care in our state.

Dr. Mark R. Greenwood

President of the Utah Medical Association