CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An official at West Virginia University's medical school says rising student loan debt could eventually create a shortage of doctors in the state.
Debt is beginning to influence which specialty students choose to pursue, said vice dean Dr. Norman Ferrari, and it could theoretically stop people from applying to medical school.
Ferrari tells the Charleston Daily Mail that some students might like to become family doctors. But they're choosing higher-paying specialties such as a cardiologist or an oncologist instead.
"I sometimes hear students say `Gee, I would like to be a pediatrician but I need to be a' . . . whatever kind of `ologist' they think they need to be,'' Ferrari said. "The debt is starting to influence their decision making.''
A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Commission says West Virginia medical school students graduated with an average $186,000 in student loan debt in 2012.
That figure doesn't include student debt they may have incurred while earning their bachelor's degrees. Undergraduate debt for 2008, the year most 2012 medical students graduated, averaged more than $29,065, the commission said in a separate report.
At WVU, the average medical student's debt was $156,425 in 2012, compared with $162,010 at Marshall University's medical school. Graduates of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine had the highest debt, with an average $240,283.
Spokeswoman Denise Getson said the osteopathic school hasn't raised tuition for several years and tries to link students with resources such as the National Health Service Corps, which helps repay loans for doctors who serve in high-need areas.
Many of the students are also from outside West Virginia, Getson said, so they pay a higher tuition and therefore incur more debt. The school has 255 resident students and 582 nonresidents.
Marshall's medical school had been on probation by its accrediting body, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education, because its graduates' debts once exceeded the national average. But a new dean hired last year began pushing for more scholarship awards, giving out $1.93 million for the 2012-13 school year, said spokeswoman Linda Holmes.
About 65 percent of Marshall medical school students receive scholarships of about $10,000 apiece.
Ferrari said tuition is always increasing at WVU, where debt is also growing because many students are nontraditional -- older, sometimes married and with children. They take on more debt, he said, because they need more cash to support their families while they forgo jobs.
WVU offers debt management training, providing students annual notices with their accrued totals.
Some doctors join the military to help pay off their loans, Ferrari said, but that doesn't help rural communities that need physicians.
"Once they've been stationed in Germany or Hawaii,'' he said, "it may be difficult to get them back.''