The Military Branches need physicians for the armed forces personnel and their families. The branches that have physicians are Army, Navy and Air Force; the Marines and the Coast Guard are cared for by Navy physicians.
There are two ways to become a military medical doctor. The first is to go to the military’s own medical school, Uniformed Services University, which is located on the grounds of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center near Washington, DC. All three branches are taught at USU by personnel both military and civilian.
Students of USU are commissioned as Second Lieutenants (Army, Air Force) or Ensign (Navy). They are paid the same salary as other officers of the same rank. The textbooks, lab fees and other needs are also paid for along with additional monies for housing (BAH) and food (BAS). Third and fourth year rotations can take place at any military hospital if the student so chooses.
Upon graduation, the students are promoted to Captain (Army, Air Force) or Lieutenant (Navy) and receive the corresponding increase in pay. Graduates of USU do their internships and residencies at military hospitals around the world. The military pays for all moves- whether you have a mover or do it yourself (a DITY move). Graduates are required to meet the physical fitness standards that are determined by each branch.
After residency, the USU graduate will owe seven years to the military. If the graduate chooses to do a fellowship, the fellowship does not count for the payback. In addition, often persons with prior military experience attend USU. The years served prior to attending USU also DO NOT count toward payback. If the graduate attended on the Uniformed Service Academies (West Point, the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy) or was commissioned as an officer through a civilian college ROTC program, those years owed are served in addition to the years owed for the medical education.
For example, Joe Smith attended West Point, graduated, and served as an Infantry Officer for a year while applying to USU. He then attends USU and graduates. The times Joe owes will be four years for West Point (service academies have a five year payback, less his year as an Infantry Officer) and seven for USU. This is in addition to the residency and any fellowship or additional training Joe may seek.
The second and more common way to receive a ‘free’ medical education is the HPSP or Health Professions Scholarship Program which is offered through civililian medical schools. The HPSP pays for tuition, all school fees and provides a monthly stipend. The students are also reimbursed for most textbooks and there are some reimbursements for equipment.
The HPSP students are also officers and attend military training for which they are paid. During the third and fourth year of medical school, the student can have rotations at both military and civilian training hospitals. As the end of fourth year approaches, the HPSP student must apply for BOTH military and civilian residencies. Most HPSP students will receive a military internship. For that reason, it is important for the HPSP student to be familiar with the various internship programs their military branch may have in their area of interest.
The USU students will take priority for the internships available, and all remaining openings will be filled by HPSP students.
The time owed by HPSP students varies but averages four years after all required trainings are completed. The HPSP students are also under the same obligations in terms of service academy or ROTC scholarship time owed.
Some questions people may have:
1) What happens if I want to be a gastroenterologist and the military doesn‘t need any?
You will receive an internship in an area that the military does need, or you can serve a year or two as a general medical officer until there is an opening in your desired area.
2) What happens if there is a war?
Currently, those who are completing their military training are not going to be activated. Trainees are liabilities and the military is not going to risk investing in someone?s future only to have them not be able to repay their time owed. Once training is complete, the physician may be sent to a conflict. This is entirely dependent upon what the branch of the military needs at that time.
3) What happens if I want to do a fellowship and the speciality is unavailable through the military?
Most specialties are available through the military. However, if not, the physician can apply for and receive a civilian fellowship.
4) What is the difference between physicians and others of the same rank?
There isn’t any difference, except that physicians receive a bonus after residency and annually thereafter to compete with civilian pay.
5) What happens to the family?
When you become active duty, military dependents are entitled to all of the benefits as any other active duty military family. This includes free medical care and medications, the ability to shop on any military base/post, and the education available to all students at that facility. Furthermore, there are additional benefits for spouses and children depending on which branch of the service you are in.
6) Do we have to live on the military base/post?
No, you do not. Often there is limited housing for officers so there is an additional sum of money paid to those people who live in civilian housing.
7) Do we have to go overseas?
You will go where the military needs people of whatever area of expertise you have. That said, the military does work with the physicians to keep them in whatever area they would like to be. They understand that after the time owed is paid, often the salaries are not what a person can make as a civilian.
Other sources of information:
You can also talk to your local recruiter, but they are not usually as informed about these programs as they are about the ones for enlisted personnel.
If you are interested, the recruiters should be able to provide you with the names of people who manage the various HPSP programs in your area.