Published: Monday, January 28, 2013
Page: 1A

Medical school graduates in West Virginia are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, which could eventually lead to a shortage of physicians in the Mountain State.

West Virginia’s newly minted doctors graduated with an average of $186,000 in medical school debt last year, according to a report released earlier this month by the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

Dr. Norman Ferrari, vice dean for education and academic affairs at WVU’s medical school, said that crushing debt is beginning to affect which specialties new doctors choose.

While students might have wanted to become family doctors, Ferrari said that specialty typically does not make as much money as a cardiologist or oncologist, or another specialty where doctors perform expensive procedures.

“I sometimes hear students say ‘Gee, I would like to be a pediatrician but I need to be a’ . . . whatever kind of ‘ologist’ they think they need to be,” Ferrari said. “The debt is starting to influence their decision making.”

Students at West Virginia University’s medical school graduated with an average $156,425 in debt in 2012, while students at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine were $162,010 in debt, on average.

Doctors leaving the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine incurred the most debt, however, with an average $240,283 in student loans.

And it appears the numbers are only getting higher.

In 2008, Marshall med school graduates were an average $147,902 in debt while West Virginia University grads had $125,438 in loans and WVSOM graduates had $176,297.

“Theoretically, it could make people stop applying to medical school,” Ferrari said.

What’s more, medical school debt figures only tell half the story. The Higher Education Policy Commission’s statistics do not include loans students might have taken out while completing their undergraduate degrees.

West Virginia’s public college students who completed their undergraduate degrees in 2008 – the year most 2012 medical school graduates got their bachelor’s degrees – had an average $29,065 in debt, according to a separate report from the commission.

That means a student who obtained a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University before heading to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine could have more than $233,000 when he or she leaves school.

Ferrari said there are several reasons for the increasing debt.

Tuition is always increasing, he said, and more nontraditional students are entering medical school. These students are older, and are sometimes married with children. Ferrari said they often take on more debt than their younger counterparts because the demands of medical school prevent them from having a job, and they need cash to keep their families going.

But simply reducing tuition is not a viable option, Ferrari said. The cost of providing medical education is constantly climbing. Medical schools must pay faculty salaries and facility maintenance costs while trying to provide students with the latest technologies.

“Providing the learning environment has become very expensive,” he said.

So universities are taking other steps to help students keep their debt under control.

Ferrari said WVU tries to provide students with debt management training, and funnel as much money as possible to scholarships. The school also provides students with a notice every year to show how much debt they have incurred.

He said doctors are also finding creative ways to pay off their loans, agreeing to work for specific communities or hospitals in return for some money toward their debt. Others make similar deals with the U.S. military. Ferrari said joining the armed forces might be a good move for students, but does little to help the shortage of doctors in rural communities.

“Once they’ve been stationed in Germany or Hawaii it may be difficult to get them back,” he said.

Linda Holmes, director of development and alumni affairs for Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, said her school is attempting to provide medical students with more scholarship money.

The school handed out $1.93 million in scholarships to medical school students for the 2012-2013 school year. About 65 percent of Marshall medical school students receive scholarships from the university, at about $10,000 per student.

Last year, the school gave about $825,000 in scholarships to about 33 percent of the student body.

Holmes said by providing more money in scholarships, the university reduces the need for student loans.

Marshall’s medical school previously was put on probation by its accrediting body, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education, because graduating students’ debt was higher than the national average. When the medical school hired its new dean Dr. Joe Shapiro last year, he began pushing administrators to generate more money in scholarships.

The money has come from alumni, businesses, friends of the medical school and Marshall Health, the university’s private practice arm.

Denise Getson, spokeswoman for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, said the school has not raised its tuition in several years as an attempt to help students control their debt. She said the school also tries to direct students to resources like the National Health Service Corps, which helps new doctors repay their loans in return for service in high-need areas.

Getson said WVSOM’s debt figures are likely much higher than other state medical schools because of its large number of out-of-state students. The school has 255 in-state students and 582 students from outside West Virginia.

Tuition for in-state students is about $20,000, while out-of-state students pay nearly $50,000 per year.