Searching for Housing on a Resident Salary: Can We Do More to Help Residents?

It’s an unusually cold spring day in the Bay Area. I have a full page of appointments for house showings or, more precisely, room showings. It’s that time of the year again when leases are up and the rising cost of living forces me to look into a more affordable living situation. This is not a new process. Having lived in the Bay Area since medical school, I am used to the scarcity of living options. But when you are forced to look for housing when you also are burdened with a resident’s scarcity of time and money, it is a challenge.

The 2018 Medscape Survey on Resident Salary and Debt shows that the average resident physician earned an average salary of $59,300 in 2018. The variation in salary is approximately $10,000, depending on specialty and residency location. Over the past three years, resident salary has increased 1–2 percent, which, depending on the year, has barely kept up with inflation. It’s not surprising then that approximately 65 percent of residents do not feel fairly compensated.

The truth is, residency has made me fairly apathetic about issues of fair compensation and employee wellness — mainly because to engage with these complex topics, I’d need to have the luxury of time to ruminate. Today, as I shuttle between one room showing to another, on my only day off this week, all I can think about is how exhausting the process is. My first showing of the day is for a “three bedroom apartment,” in quotes because every imaginable space has been converted into a makeshift “bedroom,” including the living room and the walk-in pantry. This allows, apparently, for a total of six people to inhabit the house. I had started the day off by telling myself that I would never allow myself to live in such cramped living quarters, because I am a “fully-grown adult” now. But by midday, I find myself trying to outbid a college student to live in someone’s glorified shed. At the end of the day, all I want is a signed lease so that I do not have to repeat this process on my next day off.

Discussing finances as a resident physician is interesting, partly because unless you are talking about it with another resident, there is little sympathy for the financial strain. This is understandable to a degree, given the fairly decent compensation residents can expect after residency. But when all of the hospital’s support staff (and even the cashier at In-N-Out) take home a higher hourly rate than the average resident physician, it is hard not to pause and reevaluate whether we, on a system-level, can do more to alleviate the financial stressors of residency.

Residency programs do try to make it better. For example, many programs are generous with meal allowances, gym membership reimbursement; some even provide living stipends. It helps. But I also wonder if the hospitals that continue to make millions in profit off the work that residents do could afford to be a bit more generous in helping their residents afford the basics during the 3–7 years of residency. There needs to be greater attention given to compensating residents at an appropriate level, because residents should be concentrating on training not making ends meet.

Dr. Jerome Chelliah is a resident physician in Ob/Gyn, as well as a 2018–2019 Doximity Author.

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