Jobs uncertain for med students

Brittany Lewis wakes her 5-year-old son, Santana Jones, to get him ready for school in Sacramento, Calif. Lewis juggles parenthood with studying for her medical licensing exam.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – For months, Brittany Lewis awoke early, padded into her kitchen and started each day the same. Cereal. Juice. A medical book by her side. While her 5-year-old son slept in the next room, Lewis prepared for the biggest test of her life.

In early April, she headed to a Fair Oaks, Calif., testing center and took the $530 exam in hopes of coming closer to her dream.

Lewis, a third-year student at the University of California-Davis Medical School, took the United States Medical Licensing Exam. The seven-hour, multiple-choice test is the first major exam medical students take on the road to becoming a doctor.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I think all this work is going to be worth it,” Lewis said.

The national debate over health care and the affordable care act that has roiled the country may have some questioning the future of medical care, but it has not dimmed the hopes of thousands of medical students like Lewis.

Enrollment is at an all-time high, up about 30 percent over five years ago, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The University of Calfornia-Davis received a record high of about 5,000 applications last year. Only 105 were accepted, according to Dr. Fred Meyer, executive associate dean of the school’s Health System.

But for many new medical school graduates, that enthusiasm quickly fades. The number of residency spots has not kept up with the number of medical students. “It’s our biggest concern right now,” said Christiane Mitchell of the medical colleges association. “There may not be enough residency training programs in the near future.”

New doctors face additional obstacles, including fewer employment options, complicated health care laws, and tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars of debt. The median debt for medical students who graduated in 2010 was almost $160,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Last week, a survey reflected just how uncertain many young doctors are about their future. Fifty-seven percent of young physicians (ages 40 and younger) said they are pessimistic about the future of the U.S. health care system, according to a survey by The Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes physicians working with patients.

“The overall mood is that they love medicine, but there is a much higher level of dissatisfaction than we expected once they finish residency,” said Lou Goodman, president of the foundation.

He said the doctors polled cited the new health care law, that it would increase regulatory burdens, and their debt level as primary concerns.

To meet demand amid the changing environment, medical schools are broadening the types of students they select into their programs. At UC Davis, Meyer said, they look at a candidate’s scientific expertise and grade-point average, as well as the ability to collaborate and empathize.

They’re looking for students, Meyer said, “patients will want to have as their doctors one day.”

In many ways, Lewis, 25, embodies this description. She has wanted to be a doctor since she was 5. She was pre-med at Texas Southern University in Houston. At 19, Lewis married her high school boyfriend, and Santana was born July 28, 2006. Lewis never missed a day of class.

After their son was born, they returned to California, and Lewis eventually enrolled at Sacramento State. She was the first to graduate from college. After a three-year marriage, she and her husband divorced and they share custody.

She receives about $60,000 a year in financial aid, with most of that going toward the $40,000-a-year cost of medical school. The rest is for rent, utilities and expenses. Lewis expects to graduate with about $160,000 in debt.

“Actually, I’m lucky compared to some of my classmates,” she said. “Some of them have debt from undergraduate school; I don’t.”

She said the reality of paying back the debt will determine what type of practice she will seek. “I’ll probably specialize.”