Is It Still Worth going to Medical School?

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In years gone by graduating medical school was an almost certain route to financial security. Whilst most doctors did not transcend to the dizzy heights of financial freedom and millionaire salaries, most doctors lived a very comfortable life. 40 years ago, our predecessors enjoyed free university tuition,  free accommodation at the hospital/university, competitive salaries, lower costs of living, healthy private practice options and a very lucrative pension. Many doctors unwittingly made good financial decisions in purchasing property, investing in businesses and building successful private practices. Needless to say things have changed quite drastically since then.

Millenials embarking on a career in medicine must be realistic and understand how the culture and economics have changed.

Cost of medical School

In the short time that I have been around I have seen successive governments make incremental rises in university tuition costs. In a bid to educate the nation university was virtually free prior to the 90s, and this included medical school. Then in the 1998 fees were introduced by the Labour government and were approximately £1000 per year. Outrage ensued in 2006 when fees rose to £3000.  In 2012 fees rose to the eye watering £9000 per year that it remains at today. With medical school in the UK taking between 5 and 7 years to complete, tuition expenses (and likely debt) today would be £45000 to £63000. Furthermore this does not include living expenses and associated debt.

Length of physician training

This is a somewhat controversial issue, and opinions may be divided by generational perspective. Our predecessors worked longer hours and spent more years training before becoming an independent practioner/Consultant. Training is now more streamlined, with a more competency based focus. The total length of training will depend on your specialty. In Surgery the minimum length of training is 10 years post medical school graduation. However with several competitive steps, and time taken out for research family etc, training to become a Consultant surgeon is usually 12-14 years. This is double the time spent in a US surgical residency. Whilst training is not paid particularly badly, trainee doctors are certainly not well paid. This can be frustrating as you get older and maybe have a family, aging parents etc. You will watch you family and friends purchase properties enjoy promotions, company expenses, bonuses etc. In your 30’s this can be quite challenging, and many doctors stretch themselves and experience significant financial pressures in training.

Costs of physician training

Fortunately medical school tuition is not as high as our American counterparts, though it is getting there slowly. However having postgraduate training programmes that are double that of a US residency does have financial implications. For more than a decade, you will be spending a healthy portion of your salary on training fees, membership costs, hefty exam fees, courses, conferences, travel and accommodation to and from said courses/conferences, research publication and additional degrees.

There are of course non-monetary costs of training, that are more difficult to quantify, but have been well reported. Qualitative studies have consistently reported that post-graduate medical training in the UK is marred by work-life imbalance. There are long working hours, with regular nights and weekend shifts and additional hours spent studying, preparing for exams, interviews, completing research and improving one’s portfolio.  A study from 2015 found that younger age, female sex, negative marital status, long working hours and low reported job satisfaction were predictive of burnout syndrome across medical specialties.

So is it still worth going to medical school?

The practice of medicine has clearly changed. The financial climate for doctors has taken a significant hit. Young doctors today are graduating with far higher debt in a difficult economy where cost of living is at an all time high, and property prices are out of the grasp of many, particularly in our major cities. Physicians more than ever value a work-life balance, which clearly comes at an expense. Retirement age is ever increasing whilst the NHS pension has been consistently fiddled.

The question is despite this, can todays doctors achieve financial independence and secure a stable and timely retirement. In my view they absolutely can, but doctors need to be more financially literate than they have been in the past. Doctors have been notoriously bad with money, and we cannot afford to continue making these mistakes. These include, not taking part in long term saving, not understanding investing, buying inappropriate financial products and not being tax efficient. 

So with that being said, medicine is perhaps now a more exciting career option than it has ever been. The science is quickly evolving, possibilities are expanding, and technology is rapidly advancing. For me it is a hugely gratifying career and I would still recommend medical school, but ones eyes must be wide open.

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DR JUDE

DR JUDE

Surgeon | Writer | Creative

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