OPINION: The medical residency program made saving lives the least desirable job in the world

A drawing of a person in a lab coat grabbing their hair in frustration. They are sitting at a desk, surrounded by piles of books and fires.
(Joanne Oh • The Student Life)

“Not all angels have wings, some have stethoscopes.” You may have seen this quote plastered on the wall of your doctor’s office. It may have even inspired you to go premedical, shoot for residency and start planning your future life as a physician. But don’t hold on to those dreams too tightly — chances are, you won’t make it. 

The United States is entering a massive physician shortage. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there may be a shortage of between 37,800 to as much as 124,000 physicians by 2034. So, if doctors are so important, then why are there so few? It has nothing to do with waning interest and everything to do with an inaccessible medical education system that actively crushes aspiring doctors. 

Burnout syndrome is no stranger to 5C students. The American College Health Association found that 51.7 percent of college students report significant stress from being overwhelmed. Of course, juggling an academic, social, extracurricular and healthy lifestyle can be overwhelming. For premedical students, who are expected to receive excellent grades, conduct research, join clubs and promote leadership, alongside volunteering and maintaining a social life, staying afloat –– to understate it — is tough. For those who receive financial aid, an additional part-time job –– or two –– is added onto the plate is even tougher. And if you’re a premedical student, college graduation isn’t the end goal — it’s the starting line. The race is just beginning. 

Let’s say that our hypothetical premedical student graduates college and manages to matriculate into medical school. Four more years of burnout culminate in the infamous Match Day, where graduating medical students are matched into their top residencies. Tough luck. Only 9 percent of students from allopathic and osteopathic medical schools get into their top choice programs. 

Applicants have to fight for limited positions in residency. Those who don’t initially get into a residency have to apply through the Fellowship and Residency Electronic Interactive Database Access System (FREIDA). Even though there’s a growing number of medical school enrollees, the residency system hasn’t caught up

This effectively means that there are more qualified physicians graduating from medical school than there are spots in residency programs for them to match into. The only way to fix this is for residencies to undergo dramatic systemic change. If that means the number of residency spots needs to increase, then so be it. All doctors who put up with four years of undergraduate burnout and graduate from medical school deserve to match into a residency program. Nobody should ever find themselves scrambling during the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP).

For the sake of the game, though, let’s say that our hypothetical now-doctor does match into residency. The expected salary for residents is $56,396 per year. On average, that amount of money is the result of 80 hour work weeks, often consisting of 24 hour shifts. The problem? This dough doesn’t come close to tackling student debt: The average debt for the Class of 2021 residents was $200,000 — not including undergraduate debt. 

It is unethical to pay doctors near minimum wage while they are loaded with medical school debt and tasked also with supporting themselves. After all, not everyone has the privilege or opportunity to work near their support systems — some folks may not even have a safe space. As the cost of living goes higher, wages need to adjust to reflect that. Until then, residency conditions will continue to weed out competent and accomplished doctors. 

Even if our hypothetical medical student is privileged enough to afford residency, they are not spared from the health effects of the program. Residency, in its current form, is round two of burnout — with even further-reaching consequences. Stress is proven to greatly contribute to — if not directly cause — chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and depression, which are, ironically, many of the diseases that the doctors-in-training are trying to cure in the first place. In fewer words, residency conditions are landing doctors in hospital beds. Chronic health conditions impede the ability of future physicians to treat their patients. 

“Study after study shows that sleep-deprived resident physicians are a danger to themselves, their patients and the public,” Dr. Michael Carome, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group director said, according to Forbes. Nearly all the existing scientific literature shows that a lack of sleep impedes performance, so why are we making those who have lives in their hands sleep deprived? Do we want them to accidentally suture the wrong wound? I sure as hell don’t.

If our hypothetical premedical-turned-sleep-deprived-resident proves anything, it’s this: Being a doctor is becoming increasingly inaccessible. With our future doctors being overworked, underpaid, burnt out and not able to match into programs, it’s no wonder that there is a shortage of physicians. Saving lives has become the least desirable job in the world, and for good reason. How long before we flatline? I don’t want to find out — but the way things are trending, we might not have a choice. 

Joanne Oh PZ ’25 is from La Canada, California. She loves drawing, reading and memorizing Organic Chemistry mechanisms. 

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