It is 2022, and the COVID-19 pandemic is still unrelenting, with no end in sight. Health care workers have been challenged mentally, physically, and emotionally. Sadly, some may never fully understand the struggles of many medical professionals, especially residents. It is no new news that residents have historically been underpaid and overworked. However, what is new is the inflation and price increase on the cost of living. Despite this, salaries have not changed to meet residents’ needs. Residents find themselves living paycheck to paycheck, and some even reverting to taking out loans to cover their living expenses. The heroes who risk their lives to save others can’t even afford to live their own lives.
The average medical school student’s debt is upwards of a quarter-million dollars, not including prior education loans and accruing interest. How is an average resident salary of 60K supposed to cover living expenses, providing for your family, and paying off loans that most medical students graduate with? What’s even worse, is the increased expenditure and work hours residents must now put in since the start of the COVID pandemic.
With the new surge of the Omicron variant, hospitals are flooded, and health care workers are testing positive left and right. Most places are extremely understaffed, causing workers to come in when they weren’t scheduled and adding more responsibilities to those who are working. When a health care worker tests positive for COVID, this means someone else needs to cover their shift. The already overworked resident now loses their only time off.
Even more baffling is the changing CDC guidelines. Now health care workers are approved to return to work after testing positive for COVID if the workplace is understaffed. This raises an extreme ethical dilemma. Is it ethical for someone who is positive to be caring for patients? Asking health care workers to work while infected would facilitate spreading the illness to others including patients and staff. And why are health care workers suffering for others? Working while COVID positive comes at the expense of the health care worker’s physical and mental health. Why are physicians being asked to choose between their own health and well-being and that of their patients?
This calls for a major change to the residency match system. If this pandemic showed us anything about medicine, it is that our system is broken, and the physician shortage is still critical. Yet we have medical school graduates who have completed and passed all requirements and fail to match a residency program year after year. If every medical school graduate is guaranteed a residency position, we would increase the number of physicians by approximately 4,000 per year. Opening more residency positions can be beneficial for many reasons:
- Decreased workload on all physicians
- Increased training to increase the number of physicians
- Preserving mental health of physicians
- Combating staffing shortages
- Better health care access for patients
The list can go on.
We hope that this pandemic can highlight the red flags that have been brushed under the rug for decades. We hope that proper changes will be made to help fix a flawed system. Every U.S. accredited medical school graduate deserves to be guaranteed a residency spot; a position that will pay them properly for their work and sacrifices. After completing years of schooling and accruing an exuberant amount of debt, all while sacrificing their own personal lives to care for the lives of others, that is the least that could be offered to those graduates. We hope that the mental health of health care workers stops being taken for granted. We are not expendable. We are humans, and we deserve a system that prioritizes our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
Angela Awad and Catherine Tawfik are medical students.
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