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WSU aims to lower med school debt to help new doctors

WSU medical student Brent Conrad grew up in Colfax, where he plans to return to practice family medicine. “I know there may be some financial sacrifices as part of that,” he said, but “money has never really mattered to me that much.” (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU medical student Brent Conrad grew up in Colfax, where he plans to return to practice family medicine. “I know there may be some financial sacrifices as part of that,” he said, but “money has never really mattered to me that much.” (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Brent Conrad wants to be a family doctor in Colfax, where his parents own a wheat farm.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’m smart enough to be a farmer,” said the first-year medical student. “I have a deep respect for the profession. My dad can look at a field and know what pesticides and fertilizers are needed.”

But Conrad, 24, can see himself thriving in the role of primary care physician in the close-knit agricultural community, enjoying the challenge of diagnosing and treating a variety of health issues.

Reaching that goal will cost Conrad about $140,000 in tuition for four years at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd School of Medicine. He’ll take on tens of thousands of dollars in loans for a practice that’s far less lucrative than being a specialist or a doctor in a big city.

His eventual debt level? “I haven’t even added it up,” he said.

With the help of a financial planner at WSU-Spokane, however, Conrad is taking charge of his finances. He’s crafted a monthly budget and spending plan. While some doctors still are paying off medical school loans in their 50s, Conrad hopes to have the loans paid off within 10 years.

Part of the WSU School of Medicine’s mission is training doctors to work in rural and low-income urban areas. One of the best ways to do that is helping students reduce their medical school debt, said Dr. John Tomkowiak, the school’s dean.

“We know that indebtedness affects the kind of doctor they choose to be and the location of where they practice,” he said.

Primary care physicians – such as a family doctor, pediatrician or psychiatrist – often make about $150,000 less than a specialist or a surgeon. Location also influences how doctors are paid, Tomkowiak said.

“We want our students to follow their passions, without the worry and stress of having a huge debt to pay off,” he said.

Piling debt

Most medical school students graduate with hefty loans, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. In 2016, the median debt after four years was $190,000.

At that level, the new doctors face monthly payments of $1,500 to $2,800 after they finish their residencies, the AAMC study said.

But for many students, debt loads are even higher, Tomkowiak said. Some students accrued debt during their undergrad years, and others need to borrow money for living expenses in addition to tuition. WSU encourages med students not to work because their studies are so intense.

Some medical students borrow up to $56,000 per year to cover tuition and basics such as food, rent and transportation, Tomkowiak said. Add in annual interest rates of 6 to 7 percent on the loans, and the debt grows quickly.

Tuition and fees at WSU’s medical school is $35,880 per year. The college awarded $350,000 in scholarships to the inaugural class of 60 students, who started their studies in August. Each student received a scholarship – $2,500; $5,000; or $10,000 – based on their financial need.

The median age for WSU’s medical students is 26, which puts them in their early 30s by the time they finish medical school and residency programs.

WSU’s long-term goal is to cover tuition for all medical school students. But to make that possible, the current scholarship endowment of $1.6 million would have to grow to between $500 million and $1 billion, Tomkowiak said.

In the meantime, WSU has hired a full-time financial planner who meets regularly with medical students. Rich Ronnestad is the medical school’s director of financial education and scholarship support.

“I’ve already heard students tell me that conversations with him have changed how they budget,” Tomkowiak said. “Some have decided against taking out additional loans.”

Ronnestad called students before they arrived at WSU-Spokane in August. He wanted to know more about their finances, including whether they had credit card debt or undergraduate student loans.

Pinching pennies

Conrad knew early on that he wanted to be a doctor. As a high school student, he job shadowed a family doctor in Colfax. For college, he chose Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, for the strength of its pre-med program.

“Even as a little kid, I knew I wanted to help people,” he said. “I’ve always been a bit of a saver. … So for several years, I’ve seen my money as an investment toward my dream.”

Conrad arrived at WSU-Spokane with $22,000 in undergraduate debt. He also had some money set aside from the year he spent working as a registration clerk at a Boise hospital before he started medical school.

Ronnestad helped Conrad refine his monthly budget, including putting aside money to cover the cost of future applications for a medical residency. Conrad packs his lunch daily and makes his own coffee.

“You’d be surprised how much that allows you to save,” he said.

Ronnestad will meet regularly with the students during their med school years and into their residency programs. Conrad said working with a financial planner has made him feel more confident about the future. Before the meetings, he thought he might be paying off med school debts until retirement.

“What I want to do is family medicine, and I know I want to practice in Colfax,” Conrad said. “There may be some financial sacrifices as part of that, (but) money has never really mattered that much to me.”