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Medical Residents Are Indebted But Reasonably Happy

Medical residents are the tweeners of health care.

They've got their medical degrees but still haven't finished the training they need to go forth and practice their chosen specialties.

Talking to residents is one way to get a bead on where medicine may be headed. Medscape, an online news source for health professionals, just released a survey of more than 1,700 medical residents that asked a slew of questions about their hopes, everyday experience on the job and finances.

We pulled some of the highlights from the results released Wednesday. (For the more detailed findings, check out Medscape's report "Residents Salary & Debt Report 2015: Are Residents Happy?")

Right off the bat, the survey shows that most resident are in debt. And some are deeply in debt — more than a third are at least $200,000 in the hole.

Most residents work long hours, often in hospitals. But concerns about patient safety led to changes in work hours that put limits on the lengths of shifts. So how much time are residents clocking at the hospital each week? Overall, about 47 percent of residents are spending 60 or more hours a week in the hospital. The times vary by year of residency. Only 18 percent of resident said their hours were excessive.

How are the working relationships between residents and their colleagues? Quite good, it seems, whether those colleagues are senior doctors or nurses and physician assistants.

The answer were less glowing to the specific question of whether residents are satisfied with their treatment by attending physicians, the doctors who teach and supervise residents. Equal proportions responded that they were very satisfied or only somewhat satisfied with the way these doctors dealt with them. "Some attendings belittle us, curse at us, yell at us, don't teach, are unreasonable, and promote a negative work culture," as one resident told Medscape. "Others are fantastic to work with, patient, great teachers, and knowledgeable."

Given all the fretting about whether we'll have enough doctors (and other) providers of primary care in the future, it's natural that Medscape asked the residents in primary care about their plans. A little less than half of them said they planned to stick with primary care. About an equal proportion said they have another specialty in mind. A smaller fraction said they'd already given up on primary care but hadn't figured out their ultimate specialty yet.

On that note, primary care, which pays less than many other specialties, may be unappealing. When asked if potential earnings influence the choice of specialty, the vast majority of residents said it was a significant factor. Only 10 percent said future income potential didn't factor in at all.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.