I recently read a couple of articles that really gave me pause. One was an appeal from a young doctor to those in Washington responsible for the creation of public policy. His burden was to help the lobbyists, special interests, and especially politicians understand the long and arduous path to becoming a physician in contemporary America, and what that career looks like even after the training and preparation are completed.
This doctor was not complaining or bemoaning the difficulty of his vocation. It was clear that he loves what he does and that he, like most doctors, gets great satisfaction from spending himself on helping others. He was, however, clearly frustrated that many who exercise direct control over his field seem to have little understanding of what it takes, physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially to be a doctor today.
From his own experience and that of many of his colleagues he recounted some of the details of the fourteen year post high school education that had led up to his becoming a practicing physician. He talked about the 80+ hour weeks during med school, the sub $40k salary of the typical resident, and the years spent in a fellowship learning his specialty. He also talked about the $230,000 of debt he incurred over the course of that fourteen years of training, and how glad he was to find that his pile of debt was actually smaller than that of many of his colleagues.
He also reminded his readers of the fact that becoming a physician is not just about enduring med school and the additional training required so that then one can coast into a life of leisure, short days, perks and benefits, and a lucrative salary. No, even after one has “made it” and become a practicing physician the reality for most is 60+ hour work weeks, regular on-call status, free time spent keeping up with the current research and literature, and making up for lost time saving and investing while trying to pay down all that debt.
This leads me to the second article, far less engaging as a human interest account, nevertheless provides some helpful insight into the financial burden that can attend a life in the medical field. Without going into the details, which you can read for yourself, the article shows that for the average person who has to take out loans and spend most of their time studying and researching during med school, internship, and any fellowship they may pursue the reality of being a doctor is not a life of wealth and luxury.
In fact, according to their calculation, which sought to take into account all the most obvious factors, it appears that the average doctor really only makes a few dollars more per hour worked than a teacher.(Obviously, doctors work far more hours than the typical teacher and thus take home more money, but the point stands.) This isn’t a knock on teachers, but rather, as the article says: “Most people would argue that high school teachers are not paid enough, yet for some reason most people would also argue that physicians are paid too much.”
Again, it is important to emphasize that neither of these articles was written in a woe-is-me spirit, or to complain about how rough life as a doctor is. The point of both articles is to help the public, and particularly those who work on public policy, understand both what is involved in becoming and serving as a doctor and what the compensation for that work actually looks like when you take into account years spent training, debt incurred, hours worked, etc.
What I took away from reading the articles was a renewed appreciation for doctors. I have had a handful of experiences in my life where the care of doctors was a matter of life and death for myself or loved ones. At those moments I remember thinking what a wonder it was that these people come to work every day and make people better for a living.
So, today’s post is just a small thank you to doctors. We know about the crushing debt, the long hours, and the mental stress. We know that those who make public policy often seem to have little understanding of what your life (and your finances) actually look like. We stand with you in hoping that things like the articles discussed here reach the right people and make an impact on those who suggest that doctors make too much, or that the way to fix broken public policy is to reduce payments to the physicians who actually do the work of bringing healing to the sick. We appreciate you, and we will always seek to be a voice on your behalf.
This post was written by Justin Donathan.