As many of you start applying for medical school, the main focus is usually just getting in! However, the other main consideration that most people have is the cost. This may be particularly scary if you already have a lot of debt for other reasons, such as undergraduate loans, or if you are most interested in a lower paying specialty. This can be intimidating!
Often, this is the time that most people hear about the Health Professional Scholarship Program (HPSP), which is a scholarship program that each branch of the military (Army, Air Force, and Navy) offers to pay for medical school. If you have prior military service or ties you may have an interest based on those reasons as well. There is also a military medical school, but it works differently, so we won’t get into that now. So what exactly is this program?
HPSP offers to pay for all of your medical school tuition, fees, books, board exams, supplies, health insurance (if required by your school), and offers a small stipend as well (mine was around $2k/month). In return for this scholarship, you are required to “pay back” four years of active duty service time. The military also has residency programs, and most HPSP students will complete their residency in the military (although there are a few civilian deferred spots as well). Because you are active duty during residency, you are paying back your medical school time, but you are concurrently accumulating more time to pay back- you must then work as an active duty physician to pay back for your residency years. Make sense?
For me, I attended a civilian medical school, and basically you would never know I was in the Army other than everything was paid for and I went to an “officer training” for 6 weeks my first summer. I matched into dermatology at the Army program in San Antonio and I am now in my last year residency. That means that this summer I will have paid back my medical school obligation. However, they just trained me (and paid me as a Captain) for four years, and I owe that time back. So now I will go work in Alaska for 4 years, as an active duty dermatologist on base. After that, I can leave, or sign up for more time.
I am very grateful to the Army. It is amazing to walk away debt free from a rather expensive medical school. My husband and I had many additional opportunities including him going back to school, because we had my stipend and other costs were covered. My residency training has been exceptional, and I get to take care of some incredible veterans, active duty members, and their families. I am well compensated as a resident, and my family all have free health care through Tricare. This has been particularly extraordinary considering my oldest daughter broke her leg one year and my baby had a 10 day stay in the NICU. I didn’t pay a penny and the care was incredible.
What’s the catch? Being in the military is full of uncertainty. I was given a list of places to choose for payback, but there were no guarantees of where I would go. Sometimes people get what they really don’t want. The pay is less as a board certified physician. There is always the risk of being deployed, although this varies greatly by specialty. As a medical student, the number of residency spots can really vary each year. The military doesn’t force you into any speciality, but if you don’t match into what you wanted, you can either scramble into another spot that is left, or you can choose to work as a general medical officer until your commitment is up. Military medicine is currently undergoing a huge overhaul, with a focus on specialties that are considered essential to war-fighting (think: trauma surgery, ortho, ED, etc), with less and less focus on others. This is going to change a lot of things.
Which branch should I choose? Everyone has their own unique reasons for choosing one branch over another. Some have family traditions or commitments. Others choose based on potential bases where you could be stationed. Others choose based on lifestyle. I chose Army because it is the biggest branch, so it had the most number of residency spots available. The pros and cons of each branch can really vary by specialty- so if you know what specialty you want to do, try to talk to someone in that specialty to find out what it’s really like. Reach out to me if you have no contacts, and I will help if I can.