Jun 04

Do You Want to Go to Medical School?

doctorMaybe a better question is, “Do you want to become a doctor?” It is very likely that most doctors practicing today would say that this is a worthy ambition. However, ambitions are like drugs, operations or other medical procedures – they come with costs and risks, not just with benefits.

The medical profession has long been seen as one of the most desirable fields of work. Each year, many more people apply to U.S. medical schools than are admitted, testifying to this continued status. However, before you commit to pursuing this goal, there are some things you should consider carefully –

  • It’s hard work.
  • It is very competitive
  • It takes a long time.
  • It requires an expensive education
  • We do not know the future

Hard work is a constant companion throughout medical education and practice. There is just no way around this. A young person, aged 18, who graduates from high school in 2018, can look forward to four years in an undergraduate degree program. They are likely to be 22 at graduation (that will be the year 2022). The vast majority of students accepted into medical schools have majored in one of the “hard sciences” or STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). There are a few true geniuses who do not have to work hard for a degree in chemistry, physics, biological science or bioengineering, but this is not true for most students. Even a person of above average intelligence must rigorously apply themselves to this task.

Getting into medical school remains a very competitive process, even for those students who are academically qualified. The typical graduate applies to 12 or more medical schools and the national acceptance rate is about 45% annually. Many of those who do not get admitted go on to further education and reapply, but this is no guarantee of future admission.

If you graduate at age 22 from a four-year degree program and are admitted to medical school, there are four more years of classroom academic education and “on-your-feet” clinical training for no pay. This means that at med school graduation, you are 26 and still looking at a minimum of three years of residency training (a few more if you want to specialize). Medical residents are paid, but by no means what they are worth to the medical care system. This means that a young doctor is probably in their early 30’s when they begin to practice on their own. Today’s 18 year old will be 31 or 32 and the year will be 2030 or thereabouts!

By contrast, a person who enters electrical engineering or a computer science field (equally difficult academic disciplines) has by age 32, accumulated 8 to 10 years of earnings history, years of professional contacts and experience and has nowhere near the debt level a medical student carries. The American Medical Student Association estimates that in 2016, the average medical school debt was $190,000, with 25% of graduates carrying a debt of more than $200,000.

The value of those lost years of earnings is hard to estimate, but consider this – Georgia Tech reports that the average salary for a four-year graduate in its STEM programs (Spring quarter, 2017) was $70,000 in their first year of work. Practically all of those grads would be academically qualified to go to med school, but at a sacrifice of 10 x $70,000 = $700,000 in lost earning potential. More, actually; $70,000 was the starting salary. It is hard to justify becoming a doctor on just economic grounds alone.

The last thing to think about is the uncertainty of the future. In doctor-talk, the future is like an exploratory operation: we just do not know what we will find. It is likely that being a physician or surgeon will continue to be a respected and well-paid profession, but we live in an age of “guaranteed uncertainty.” The day when most doctors were absolutely their own bosses, set their own hours, accepted whatever insurance they wanted, prescribed without formulary committee approval, and answered only to themselves is gone. Providing and paying for medical care is going to become more and more of a public policy issue, not in the hands of doctors alone. Future doctors may find this a very important factor to consider.

All that said, there are thankfully, thousands of bright young people who are willing to take this difficult journey. They must be motivated by a sincere desire to help others. In the words of a very wise man, “Nothing worthwhile was ever accomplished without the will to start, the enthusiasm to continue and, regardless of temporary obstacles, the persistence to complete.” Thank you for considering all of this and best of luck to you!

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