Like most medical students, Kaitlyn Thomas’s education was abruptly interrupted by the pandemic. Her school, an osteopathic medicine institution in the Midwest, followed guidelines issued by the American Association of Medical Colleges in March, shifting lectures online and suspending activities in which students interacted with patients. But even as Ms. Thomas’s learning opportunities dwindled for the sake of safety, the costs kept piling up.
Instead of going home to live with her family, she stayed in her apartment near school – and kept paying rent – so she could be nearby for the two licensing exams she was scheduled to take 3 months later. Both tests were canceled 9 days before she was scheduled to take them, one without any notification. This meant she had to travel to two different testing sites in two different states. All told, she said, the whole thing cost her around $2,000.
Ms. Thomas’s experience isn’t rare. Across the country, medical students find themselves paying substantial costs for a medical education now greatly altered by the pandemic. Despite restrictions on time spent in hospitals, hands-on learning, social events, and access to libraries, gyms, study spaces, and instructors, the price of tuition hasn’t dropped but has remained the same or has even risen.
In response, students have become vocal about the return on their pricey investment. “Am I just going to end up doing most of my year online, and what does that look like for my future patients?” Ms. Thomas asked. “It really doesn’t feel like a time to be limiting education.”
Medical schools and administrators are scrambling to find creative solutions for safely educating students. No matter what those solutions may be, experts say, the pandemic has drawn fresh attention to enduring questions about how the cost of medical education compares to its value. Although many are frustrated, some see the potential for COVID to open new opportunities for lasting innovation. At the very least, the pandemic has sparked conversations about what matters most in terms of producing qualified physicians.
“While this is a challenging time, we will get through it, and we will continue to educate doctors, and we will get them through to practice,” says Robert Cain, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Many in the midst of training still have one lingering question: Is the price future doctors are now paying still worth it?
COVID’s “hidden costs” for students
Tom is a third-year student at an allopathic medicine institution in the Caribbean. He asked not to be fully identified here, owing to concern about possible backlash. In March, Tom was doing clinical rotations in New York City when his training was put on hold. He returned home to Connecticut and resumed working 60-80 hours a week as a paramedic. As much as 75% of that income went to pay for the New York City apartment he was no longer living in – an apartment that cost more than $2,000 a month – and for student loans that suddenly came due when his enrollment status changed.
Tom has been able to take some online courses through his school. But he still doesn’t know whether state licensing boards will accept them, how residency programs will view them, or whether he will eventually have to retake those online classes in person. At the end of September, he was allowed to return to the hospital but was relocated to Chicago and was forced to move on short notice.
Like many students, Tom has worried that the pandemic may prevent him from acquiring crucial elements for his residency applications, things like letters of recommendation or key experiences. That could delay his next stage of training, which would mean lost future income, increasing student loan interest, and lost work experience. “This could also mean the difference between getting a residency and being able to practice medicine and not being able to practice my intended specialty,” he said. “This is the real hidden cost we may have to deal with.”
International medical students hoping to practice in the United States face additional costs. Michelle Warncke earned her bachelor’s degree in America but went to the United Kingdom for her master’s and her medical degree, which she completed in 2019. She then moved to North Carolina with her husband and saved money to take the exams she needed for residency in the states. But her scheduled Step 2 CS exam was canceled because of the pandemic. Now, like hundreds or even thousands of other students, she said she is unable to apply for residency, even as her student loans collect interest. An active Facebook group of international medical graduates includes about 1,500 people with comparable dilemmas.
The path to becoming a physician carries a well-known price tag, one that is already quite high. Now, for many, that price is substantially increasing. “The only way I can actually keep my medical credentials up to date and passable, to be able to ever get a shot at a residency in the following years,” she said, “is to move to another country and work for less pay, pay for a visa, pay for my exams, pay for my language test, and wait and hope that I might be able to as an older graduate then be able to apply for residency.”
Scaling back the price of med school?
Questions about the economics of medical education aren’t new, says David Asch, MD, MBA, an internal medicine physician and executive director of the Center for Health Care Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. But the changes forced by COVID could lead to innovations that may finally better balance the financial scales.
Such innovations are necessary, many say, given how medical education costs have skyrocketed over the past half century. In the 1960s, 4 years of medical school cost about $40,000 in today’s dollars, Dr. Asch and colleagues wrote in a 2020 analysis, which they conducted before the pandemic began. By 2018, the price of a medical education in the United States had ballooned to about $300,000. About 75% of students were taking out loans. Upon graduating, the average debt was $200,000.
Medical school is expensive for many tangible reasons, Dr. Asch said. Schools must pay for curriculum, faculty, technology, textbooks, lab materials, facilities, administrators, and more. But policy changes could decrease those costs.
He says one idea would be for medical schools to join forces and give students access to the same basic lectures in the early years, delivered online by top-notch instructors. Students could then participate in on-campus programs that might only require 3 years to complete instead of 4. By demonstrating what can be done via online platforms, he said, the pandemic might pave the way to permanent changes that could reduce costs.
“I’m not trying to pick on biochemistry professors and medical schools, but how many do we need in the country?” Dr. Asch asked. “We’re all watching the same episode of Seinfeld. Why can’t we all watch the same episode of the Krebs cycle?” If all 190 or so medical schools in the United States shared such preclinical courses, he says, each would require a fraction of the current cost to produce. “We could save 99.5% of the cost. So why don’t we do that?”