Curing the Cost
New Mexico recently earned a place on the Top 10 list of an important study, but it isn’t a ranking to be celebrated. By 2030, the state is poised to experience the eighth-highest physician shortage in the nation, according to the report published by TheSeniorList.com.
While alarming, the projection is not news to Paul B. Roth, MD, MS, UNM’s Chancellor for Health Sciences and dean of the UNM School of Medicine – nor to the more than 1,000 providers in the UNM Health System.
The solution to New Mexico’s physician shortage is clear, but not simple: create more doctors in New Mexico. One might think that the biggest hurdle to becoming a doctor is getting into medical school, but as challenging as the admissions process is, most medical students will tell you that there is an even bigger barrier – the cost of medical school and the enormous debt students face upon graduating.
Medical school debt influences how and where medicine is practiced and by whom. Unfortunately, the specialties that are of greatest need and face the greatest shortage, are also the least compensated fields of medicine.
“The size of the debt, which is most often higher for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, tends to push people toward higher paying specialties,” explains Martha Cole McGrew, MD, executive vice dean of the UNM School of Medicine.
“While all specialties are needed, the ones most needed and that form the base of a health care system are the lower-paid primary care specialties of family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics. These are also the physicians that are most likely to practice outside of larger urban areas.”
For the current academic year, UNM medical students will pay $16,324 for tuition, but when living expenses and fees are added in, the total cost is more than $51,000 per year. The annual cost for UNM physical therapy students is more than $48,000, and $42,000 for UNM occupational therapy students. Physician assistant students face about $55,000 in costs in the first year of their 27-month program.
For much of Roth’s 25-year tenure as dean of the School of Medicine, making medical education in New Mexico more affordable has been a cornerstone of his life’s work. At no time has he been more poised to realize his life’s dream than now.
“I began cutting tuition by one percent per year about five years ago and today, we remain the only medical school in the country that’s actually cut tuition,” he says.
Becoming the most affordable medical school in the U.S. was a beginning, not an end for Roth, and his ultimate goal is much more ambitious and closer than it has ever been before.
“When the Legislature meets in January, I will be going forward with a step to catapult my dream of eliminating tuition costs for all medical students,” Roth announced at the annual scholarship dinner of the medical school’s La Tierra Sagrada Society on Sept. 19. “Hopefully with the support of Gov. Lujan Grisham, I will be proposing free tuition for all medical students.”
If successful, UNM will be the first and only public medical school in the country to provide free tuition.