I’m a medical student struggling with the rising cost of living

Medical student Penelope Sucharitkul holding a stethoscope and smiling in front of a building

Many medical students like me have been your Covid-19 vaccinators, your carriers and your 111 carers during the pandemic (Image: Penelope Sucharitkul)

As soon as I opened a letter from my landlord and saw that he was increasing my rent by £520 this year, I got angry.

I texted him right away, begging him to reconsider – I’ve been such a good tenant for the last four years – but it didn’t help.

As a fourth-year graduate student, this — and the generally rising cost of living — probably means I’ll take another job I don’t have time for.

I grew up in a small town in Essex where my single father was a factory worker. He can’t read or write very well, but I fondly remember him reading Mr. Men’s books to me as a child.

He always had higher ambitions for me and would lovingly warn me not to grow up “a fool” like he was. It was around this time that I realized I had the resilience required for medicine.

Unfortunately, by the time I graduated from elementary school, I had attended nine different schools, missed more than a year of study, and failed my 11+. I had family problems at the time.

During my high school graduation I also became a junior nurse for my father and grandmother. That meant I would come home and do the paperwork.

I also got up at night to take care of my grandmother with dementia before I had exams the next day. I pulled it all off and got a life changing offer to study at Leeds Medical School.

I was thrilled that I had ended the cycle of poverty and that all of my father’s sacrifices were not in vain. Little did I know at the time that medical school was not fully funded and that I would have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The first three years of medical studies consisted of a mix of lectures and internships – depending on the university, of course. During this period, students are entitled to a tuition fee loan of £9,250 and an income-tested maintenance loan of around £9,000 if you are not living with your parents.

Penelope Sucharitkul in her third year of medical school

If we want to keep the best doctors in the NHS we need to make them feel like they belong here (Image: Penelope Sucharitkul)

During this time and throughout the pandemic, I worked on the Covid-19 wards as a Health Care Support Assistant and as a Martial Arts Instructor.

But it’s not sustainable to work seven days a week and pass exams while trying to take care of your mental health.

This means that when I get to the library I wake up feeling sluggish and very burned out in the morning. It’s like a mental fog and you’re constantly in survival mode.

In the fifth year of study, student loans from Student Finance England – for maintenance and tuition fees – are discontinued.

From year five, tuition fees are paid by the NHS Student Bursary Scheme, together with a reduced maintenance loan and a non-means-tested grant of £1,000.

That adds up to around £6,500 for me, but that’s not enough to cover living expenses.

It is estimated that students – in an area like Manchester – need at least £10,300 a year to cover ongoing living expenses. That number rises to at least £13,200 a year specifically for Londoners.

The costs of studying medicine are likely to be significantly higher due to internship-related costs such as petrol and parking.

I know this funding cut is coming, so last year I did two paid summer internships – one for the British Medical Journal, which writes articles, and the other at the university’s student access strategy on postgraduate diversity – to save money .

That said, I entered what is commonly known as the most difficult year of medical school, fourth year, already feeling burned out and unappreciated.

Hardship funds aren’t an option either, because owning a car disqualifies you from most of them — even if it’s a third-hand liter like I have.

But having a car means I don’t have to get three buses back from the internship and I have a little more time to study. This is not an exceptional circumstance – hundreds of low-income medical students are placed in this situation by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Penelope Sucharitkul in surgical scrubs and with a stethoscope

It feels like we’re doomed (Image: Penelope Sucharitkul)

However, it shouldn’t be up to local hardship funds to foot the bill. Student doctors deserve full-time funding so that we can focus on our studies and provide the best possible care to patients.

So Sajid Javid, my question to you is why is £6,458 considered enough to live on for a year? Is this meager sum because medicine is traditionally not for the working class like me?

Because of this deficit, I became involved with the #LiveableNHSBursary campaign demanding immediate access to a £5,000 NHS Access Learning Support grant that would align our funding with other health courses.

The campaign was set up by four medical students, Eilidh, Trisha, Michaela and myself, together with the Doctors Association UK (DAUK). We realized we are all fighting for the same thing and decided to unite on Twitter.

We are also calling for access to full student maintenance loans of £9,000 to prevent student doctors from having to use food banks.

I don’t mind increasing my current £80,000 student debt – many students would rather take out extra student loans to pay the rent than take out a credit card.

If we want to keep the best doctors in the NHS we need to make them feel like they belong here. Many of my colleagues are already talking about moving to New Zealand, Dubai, Australia and the US – where working conditions are much better – and will allow them to pay off their university overdrafts.

Many medical students like me have been your Covid-19 vaccinators, your carriers and your 111 carers during the pandemic. The NHS is currently facing a staff shortage, with 110,000 vacancies in England alone.

We are ready to join the workforce to help resolve this crisis, but it feels like we are doomed.

So Sajid Javid – stop starving your future doctors.

You can support this action via the UK Medical Association website here.

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Justin Scacco

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