Become an MD Through the Army, Debt Free! [Show Summary]
Are you interested in practicing medicine in an environment that allows you to focus on clinical excellence? Do you want to have the option of practicing medicine in a host of different environments? Is it important for you to emerge from medical school debt-free? Do you wish to serve your country? If you answered yes to these questions, a medical career in the military might be right for you. Captain Jennifer A. Cox, current Officer in Charge at the Charleston, South Carolina U.S. Army Medical Recruiting Station, shares everything you need to know about the various options available to practice medicine in the military – and have your entire medical education paid for.
Be All You Can Be – Become an MD Through the Army [Transcript]
Our guest today is Captain Jennifer A. Cox. She graduated from Lewis University in 2011 with a BSN. While earning her BSN, she was also an Army ROTC cadet. She entered active duty as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps and has served at Fort Hood TX and Joint Base San Antonio TX. She earned her Critical Care Registered Nurse license in 2016 and then worked in the Neuro-Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit. Currently, Capt. Cox is the Officer in Charge at the Charleston, South Carolina U.S. Army Medical Recruiting Station. She has embraced this opportunity to commission fellow Army Medical Department Officers (while enjoying Charleston with her husband) and looks forward to her next assignment.
Can you tell us a little about your story? How did you come to be an army nurse and recruiter? [2:16]
Growing up I thought I wanted to be a special ed teacher, but when I got to college I had a revelation when meeting with a guidance counselor – there was a schedule for nursing clinicals on the wall, and I thought that is kind of perfect – I can help people and be involved in science, which was my favorite subject at the time.
I grew up in the military. My dad is a Naval Academy graduate – I had Saturday morning room inspections before I could go out and play with my friends – so it was a natural progression. I found the ROTC brochure during a school tour, met with the ROTC director, and before I knew it was going to Fort Knox for training that summer.
In terms of becoming a recruiter, I spent the first six years in the military as an RN, only seeing military treatment facilities and the hospital side of things, and I wanted to see more of the army. I applied for a broadening assignment, and when I found out I could be the officer in charge I thought that would be a good leadership challenge for me being a junior captain, and the opportunity to live in Charleston didn’t hurt, either. I really liked the opportunity to pick my medical department family, which is how I got here.
How does the U.S. Army help MD and DO wannabes become debt-free doctors? [5:01]
There are two different routes – one if you are wanting to go the civilian medical education route, and the other if you want to start in the military right away. The first is an active duty option, it’s called the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which provides 100% of tuition and academic fees with a monthly stipend in medical school of about $2200. This is a 3-4 year scholarship when you begin medical school. You are commissioned as a second lieutenant, which is the first officer rank, and when you graduate you are promoted to the third officer rank, which is captain, and you can begin earning your captain pay when you start.
Along with that scholarship there is a bonus you can elect for $20K, paid in three different increments. This scholarship is available when you attend any accredited U.S. medical school, can’t be online, and must be a full-time program.
The reserve option is the Medical School Stipend Program. It does not cover your tuition and fees, but you get the monthly stipend of $2200 while in school, and the opportunity for loan repayment if you attend certain residency programs with specialties that are relevant to the military, continuing to receive the stipend during residency as well.
What are the obligations incurred for that education? [8:05]
The HPSP scholarship is one year for one year – so each year you receive the scholarship you have a one year obligation to the military. The bonus I mentioned brings it to four years, if you only have the scholarship for three. If you have a four-year scholarship plus the bonus, the maximum obligation remains four years.
Can you talk a bit about the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS)? [8:50]
That is another option entirely unique to the military. It is the only tuition-free medical school that actually pays you to attend. Just as you are commissioned as an officer with the other scholarship options, you are commissioned as a second lieutenant, and additionally you earn the pay as an active duty officer while in school, on top of the payment of tuition and fees. In terms of obligations, it is different because you are getting full pay in addition to tuition and fees paid. There is a seven year obligation which begins after your residency is complete.
What are the professional benefits of starting one’s medical career in the service? [10:47]
If you can begin your career debt free you don’t have that weight on your shoulders, so you can really focus on what you’ve been studying for in school without that extra burden. The most common answer I hear from medical corps officers and doctors is that being a medical officer in the military allows them to actually practice medicine – they don’t have to deal with all the administrative issues like insurance and billing. They can just truly focus on being clinically excellent. There are also so many different opportunities for work environments – clinics, smaller community hospitals, larger medical centers, participation in humanitarian missions without closing up your practice, and also deployments. To civilians, deployments often have a very scary connotation, but from a medical perspective it can be very challenging and professionally rewarding.
What are a few of the more significant differences between civilian and military medical practice? [13:28]
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things is the ability to focus on being clinically excellent, which is a huge push in the military. We need to make sure our providers are trained to work in austere environments at the drop of a hat. We can’t train mediocre providers to go overseas and take care of our soldiers when they need that care the most. There is a lot of different education that takes place specifically at USUHS – they have almost 1000 additional hours of training compared to a regular medical school because they go year round. There is a lot more focus on leadership, on military relevant topics like extra training in military medicine and diseases you may encounter in a deployed setting, combat casualty care, and trauma, so there is a different focus unique to the military setting. The military extends to your family as well, and there are so many other support programs like family readiness groups, so when you are on long shifts or going on deployment you know that your family is being taken care of.
Let’s assume I am a sophomore in college and really interested in going this route. What’s the process? [15:49]
By junior year you should talk to a healthcare recruiter. A big misconception is that you can’t apply until you’ve already been accepted to medical school. In reality you should be talking to us the same time you are getting ready to apply for medical school, when you are getting ready to take the MCAT. The process starts with a face-to-face sit down or on the phone if you are geographically farther away. We discuss your goals, and identify which program is the best for you. We identify a board date which will set up a timeline for when we need to get everything accomplished. We’ll collect your source documents – SS card, birth certificate, etc., since sometimes they are difficult to find, and then we get transcripts, a letter of recommendation, a dean’s letter, and then you are ready for the board. Oftentimes you can be selected before you have an acceptance to a school.
What are the requirements for either the USUHS or HPSP? [18:03]
Across the board requirements are citizenship, certain physical and moral standards, and age, but specifically for HPSP it is a minimum MCAT score of 500 with 124 in each category, and a cumulative undergrad GPA of 3.2. For the reserve program there are no written minimums, but consider the same minimums for HPSP to be competitive for that. For USUHS, the average GPA is 3.6 and MCAT is 509.
Do you have to be in ROTC to be accepted? [19:15]
No, not at all. ROTC students are eligible, and still must fulfill their ROTC obligations, but can request an educational delay through their undergrad program and still participate in scholarships. No prior service is required for any of the programs.
Can you touch on other healthcare professions and educations, like dental school or PA opportunities? [19:48]
I feel like the opportunities are endless. The main one is that dental school is almost identical for medical school – there is also the opportunity for HPSP and stipends, for vet school as well. For PAs we have an interservice physician’s assistant program that is for currently serving soldiers who want to become a PA regardless of their background. If you come in as an already credentialed PA there is special pay and loan repayment options as well. We have other things like HPSP for nurses going to graduate school, and masters in social work programs. The list goes on and on.
What would you have liked me to ask you that I didn’t ask? [21:02]
Take some time to look at military medicine. So many think that if they are a doctor in the military they are only going to work at a VA or that military medicine is substandard or they should only be interested in doing these programs if they need money. I think there are so many myths around military medicine, and it is really unfortunate because the military leads the way in so many things medically. Look at all we have to offer.
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