By Stephen C. Shannon, DO, MPH, AACOM President and CEO
Medical education has changed dramatically since I began pursuing my DO degree more than 30 years ago as an osteopathic medical student at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine. Yet each graduating class tells a familiar story: heavy workloads, late nights with tired eyes, new and lifelong friendships, and a passionate determination to meet the health care challenges facing our nation. That much hasn’t changed.
This year, AACOM’s Annual Conference theme is Osteopathic Medical Education: A Focus on Resilience. Medical students face some of the most difficult and challenging moments of their lives during medical education and post-graduate training. For too many of these hard working individuals, student loan debt contributes to these challenges and places them in a position where they have to make difficult decisions about their future.
Recent graduates of osteopathic medical schools reported mean debt levels of almost $230,000, on top of their undergraduate loans. This high debt burden compounds during the years of residency training required to become a licensed physician and practice independently. Osteopathic medical students often expect to pay back 2-3 times the amount they borrow for their education – or more.
Additionally, graduate student debt has not received the same level of attention by federal policymakers as undergraduate debt. To give you an example, a few years ago Congress cut a major means of support for graduate students by eliminating their eligibility for in-school interest subsidies for Federal Stafford Loans. This costs graduate students thousands of additional dollars in interest payments on their loans for interest that accrues while they are in school.
With the financial burden of earning a graduate or professional degree greater than ever, Congress must update the Higher Education Act (HEA) so that it can better support the future physician workforce. A high percentage of osteopathic medical students express their intent to practice in primary care; however, excessive student debt plays a role in this decision. At a time when our country is facing a shortage of primary care physicians, we need to be doing everything we can to ensure federal policies incentivize these students to pursue passion for primary care.
As discussions around the latest HEA reauthorization continue, elected officials must hear from the students most impacted by their decisions.
That’s why AACOM launched the ED to MED to empower medical students to share their stories about how the heavy burden of graduate student debt impacts their future. With a united voice, medical students, educators, and other advocates can make their voices heard on Capitol Hill. Now’s the time to start a movement to protect the future physician workforce, the backbone of a well-equipped health care system.
Congress must champion financial aid options for medical students. They must give students the tools they need to face the future with resilience, give back to their communities, achieve financial well-being, and pursue their calling after graduation.
Be part of the solution by sending a clear message to federal policymakers that you’re among the growing number of students who are done with debt and ready share your story and make your voice heard.
I hope you’ll share your story with us.