Medical students are starting to lobby to reduce debt loads. The medical school division of the American Medical Association passed a resolution in November calling for the reduction of the federal-loan interest rate to a variable rate capped at 5 percent. About 150 American Medical Student Association members in white coats lobbied their legislators in Washington last month.
Jacob Burns, 23, a first-year medical student at the University of Florida, expects to owe at least $220,000 at graduation. Because of his debt, he said he has almost ruled out primary care including pediatrics for a higher-paying specialty such as pediatric or cancer surgery. About 27 percent of 2012 medical school graduates polled by AAMC said their debt load affected their choice of specialty.
"It's a lot of money to pay off and then when you look at the different salaries for different specialties, you kind of lean one way," Burns said.
Students argue that interest rates could be lowered because default rates on medical-school loans are very low: For schools that report data to AAMC, the average is about 1 percent, with a quarter of schools reporting zero.
"In the regular private market, taking out a lot more money when you are guaranteed to pay it back would have a lower interest rate," said Matthew Shick, a senior legislative analyst with AAMC.
Michael Burgess, a Republican Congressman and obstetrician from Texas, said changing the interest rate for physicians may be too narrow a focus.
"Cheap money never solves a problem," said Burgess, who estimates he left medical school in 1977 with about $4,000 in student loans. "You make a lot of easy money available and someone will do you a favor and take it off your hands."
Matthew Moy, the Chicago medical student, said he'd like to follow in the footsteps of his father and specialize in emergency medicine. In addition to the $190,000 he already owes, he expects to have to borrow almost $50,000 to pay tuition and fees for his fourth year at Chicago Medical School, part of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.
To save money, he is using textbooks handed down by his brother, who is four years ahead of him on the medical training track, and living with his parents.
"Their help, it's kind of huge," he said.