As a new academic year begins for medical students, I am excited for the next generation of physicians to begin their careers in medicine. However, like many of these students, I am also nervous: rising student debt has created significant barriers for physicians wishing to enter the primary care profession and practice in underserved communities.
While the administration’s recent actions to cancel some debt for eligible borrowers and extend the student loan pause through the end of the year are welcomed as positive steps, Congress must enact solutions. to deal with medical student debt and our shrinking primary care staff.
According to a 2021 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Primary care is the only component of health care where increased supply is associated with better population health and healthier outcomes. fair”. Still, the United States will need 48,000 more primary care doctors over the next decade, and according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the average medical school debt among the class of 2021 was $200,000. . Physicians will incur the same cost for their medical education whether they enter primary care or subspecialty areas, but once they complete their training, primary care physicians may find it more difficult to manage. debt than higher-paid, procedure-focused surgical physicians. .
Given the above, the health care community faces a workforce and equity challenge: we need more physicians to practice in underserved communities, but that’s where wages may be lower. While the administration has made efforts to ease the student debt burden and address the healthcare workforce shortage, we need to focus on programs that will encourage more medical students. to choose primary care, as well as to remove real and perceived barriers to the practice of medicine. in underserved communities.
Student debt is a major source of stress for medical students, residents and new physicians. Loan forgiveness programs, such as the Civil Service Loan Forgiveness Program, have become a potential lifeline for those struggling with student debt. These programs, and others like them, must be expanded at the federal level to improve access to health care in underserved communities, diversify the health workforce, advance health equity, and address to the shortage of doctors. Laws like the REDI Act allow medical students to benefit from an interest-free deferral on their student loans while they are in a residency training program, creating greater financial viability for physicians who wish to specialize. in family medicine and primary care.
There is also an urgent need to increase investments in federal programs that encourage doctors to practice in rural and medically underserved areas. An example is the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) program, which provides scholarships, loan repayments, or coverage of the full cost of medical school tuition to incentivize physicians to enter primary care and provide care for Americans in rural and underserved areas. By tackling the burden of student debt, the NHSC program helps expand access to health care for our most vulnerable communities and provides medical education opportunities for people who may not have thought it was within their reach.
As a family doctor practicing in a rural community, I know that if the government does not encourage students to pursue studies in family medicine and primary care, we will continue to see a serious shortage of doctors in rural areas. and underserved, which we a society cannot afford. Recent data from the Health Resources and Services Administration shows that the number of people living in a health worker shortage area has risen to more than 95 million people, reaffirming the need for increased and targeted federal investment in health professionals. primary care. The stakes are higher: For people living in many underserved areas, care from a family physician or primary care physician is often the only option to meet their health care needs .
As our future physicians enter medical school, we hope that our country’s leaders will adopt policy solutions that will tackle the crushing burden of student debt and invest in high-quality primary care, which will improve health outcomes and equity. We need solutions that encourage medical students and early career physicians to follow their hearts and career goals rather than just money. We need solutions that promote the health of each of our communities by making it easier for doctors to practice in underserved areas, and solutions that ensure our health care system is fair for all.
Sterling N. Ransone Jr. is a family physician and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. The AAFP represents 127,600 physicians and medical students nationwide.