Pictured above: Dr. Herbert Wertheim and his wife Nicole funded the medical educations of 10 students at FIU.
By his own admission, Daniel Lumpuy is “ridiculously fortunate.” According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), 84 percent of medical students have debt. And of those who do, the median amount owed is $190,000. Lumpuy, a fourth-year student at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, will graduate later this month with zero debt.
The 28-year-old is one of 10 HWCOM students whose tuition is being paid for by the Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation Scholarship.
“I am eternally grateful to the Wertheims,” says Lumpuy.
Herbert Wertheim, a long-time FIU benefactor and the college’s namesake, personally assists in selecting the Wertheim scholarship recipients. A man of humble beginnings who received the 2011 International Horatio Alger Award in recognition of his personal and professional accomplishments, Wertheim knows first-hand what it’s like to be a student struggling to make ends meet. He, too, won a scholarship, to Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, which helped with his tuition even as he worked to pay for his living expenses.
“We pick out the best of the best because we believe it will help them go out and practice maybe in areas they might not have the same financial success,” says Wertheim.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to get a free ride through medical school. Seventy-three percent of respondents to the 2017 AAMC Medical School Graduation Questionnaire reported graduating with some debt. Bianca Alvarez is one of them. A member of the HWCOM Class of 2018, Alvarez estimates she will owe about $250,000 when she graduates. That is to cover her academic as well as housing and other personal expenses.
“I feel better about it now because I’ve been reading a lot about financial planning and investment, but I try to live very frugally. It’s been a constant stress any time I had to spend money on anything,” she says.
Alvarez, who wants to specialize in emergency medicine because it fits her personality, says despite the financial challenges, the high cost of medical school was never a deterrent to pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor.
“I just couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” she says.
Beyond financial costs
The issue of medical school debt is complex.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found that high education debt exacts a human cost, including stress, suicidal thoughts, licensing exam failures and voluntary withdrawal or dismissal from medical school. A recent national survey conducted by the AAMC indicated that the cost of a medical education was the top reason minority students choose not to pursue a medical degree.
This is particularly challenging for schools like HWCOM that are committed to a diverse student population.
“We are admitting over 20 percent of a disadvantaged or underrepresented population of students, compared to 9 percent nationally,” says Marissa Miles, HWCOM director of financial assistance and alumni relations. All of the College of Medicine’s disadvantaged students are receiving some scholarship aid.
As a young college — the first class of students was admitted in 2009 — HWCOM doesn’t have the same level of scholarship funds available as do older, more established medical schools. That’s why donors like the Wertheims are so critical.
“Scholarships are a recruitment tool that allows us to compete with older, more established institutions with significant endowments to entice students,” says Dr. John A. Rock, HWCOM’s founding dean and FIU senior vice president for health affairs.
Loan debt and specialty choice
According to the 2017 AAMC Graduation Questionnaire, the percentage of medical school graduates who say their education debt affected their choice of medical specialty has decreased continuously the past five years.
In 2017, nearly 55 percent of respondents to the GQ said that debt had “no influence” on specialty choice. Less than 22 percent allowed that debt had either a “strong” (6.2 percent) or “moderate” (15.3 percent) influence.
By contrast, in 2013 nearly 28 percent of graduates said debt had a strong (8.8 percent) or moderate (19 percent) influence on their specialty choice.
The strongest influence on specialty choice, according to 2017 med school graduates, was “fit with personality, interests and skills.”
Juanita Melau isn’t one to let finances stand in the way of her goal. Since she was a little girl, she’s wanted to be a doctor. The high cost of medical school hasn’t dissuaded her. She has taken out loans and will owe about $200,000 when she graduates from HWCOM in May 2018. She wants to go into family medicine. While not the most lucrative of specialties, it holds great appeal for her.
“I like the idea of being able to take care of any patient,” she says. “The children, the parents, the abuelas, the whole family.”
Although at times overwhelmed at the thought of owing so much money, Melau looks at her debt as an investment in a career with a lot of job security. “I know I’ll be able to pay it back eventually,” she says.
Physician tops the 2018 Forbes list of highest-paying jobs in America. It is also the one in highest demand as the United States continues to experience a shortage of doctors.
Physicians working outside of the most lucrative specialties — orthopedic surgery and cardiology commanding the best pay — make an average $187,000 a year.
The College of Medicine is trying to change the perception many students, especially minority and disadvantaged students, may still have about medical school. It wants prospective students to know that despite the cost, medical school is affordable for everyone. In fact, only 1 percent of medical school graduates default on their loans.
“This is doable, this is possible, no matter what,” says Miles, who as part of her job gives the students financial advice on how to handle their debt.
“We want them to feel confident about their choices. Medicine is a calling as well as a profession, and doctors are compensated well in all fields,” says Dr. Karin Esposito, interim executive associate dean for student affairs. And it’s not just money she is talking about. “The true reward is the great feeling you get when you are able to help others.”
For many doctors, it’s priceless. ♦