Military medical careers provide benefits, financial incentives for primary care physicians

July 19, 2013

Lt. Kevin Bernstein, MD, MMS, joined the Navy in his third year of medical school. Now, as chief resident at Naval Hospital Pensacola in Florida, he says it was the right decision for his career.

Lt. Kevin Bernstein, MD, MMS, holds Logan Chase. As a primary care physician in the U.S. Navy, Bernstein treats many of the families at the naval base.

Lt. Kevin Bernstein, MD, MMS, hadn’t always planned on a medical career in the military.

In fact, it wasn’t until his third year of medical school when he met a military physician that he decided to join the Navy. Now, as chief resident at Naval Hospital Pensacola in Florida, he says it was the right decision.

Thanks to his military medical career, Bernstein doesn’t have to deal with hassles like insurance company bureaucracy, declining reimbursement, malpractice insurance and other overhead costs.  Plus, the military places a high value on primary care.

“The medical training is unrivaled to any other experience,” he says. “This is how you experience family medicine. It’s great. We see everything a family doctor would see. It’s exactly what I want to do and who I want to be.”

But his decision didn’t come without hesitation.

“You have to weigh the pros against the cons,” he says. “You have a chance of being deployed and being away from your family. You put in your wish list [for locations], and they match you up for where they need you, but ultimately it’s the needs of the Navy that you need to fill.”

Many of the sites, however, are accompanied, meaning as long as a physician’s family is medically able to go, they can accompany him or her to the location. Bernstein’s wife is able to stay with him at the naval base in Florida, but he says next year, when he begins his three years of repayment service, he doesn’t know where he’ll be stationed.

Bernstein says the pay for military residents is substantially higher than what they are likely to find in the civilian sector. The average medical resident likely makes between $40,000 and $50,000, while a medical resident in the military will likely make between $60,000 and $80,000.

Residency graduates receive a basic pay, which varies by rank. They also receive allowances for housing and sustenance, variable special pay, board-certified pay and a variety of other bonuses. The military also offers school loan repayment and scholarship programs, which may be highly appealing to many medical students who leave school with six-figure student loan debt.

But what’s most appealing to Bernstein are the advantages that come with the military healthcare system. All medical facilities in the military are operated as Patient-Centered Medical Homes, so the resources, equipment and procedures are consistent throughout each station. All of his patients are insured, so payments and reimbursements are not an issue. He also doesn’t carry any of the overhead costs associated with opening a private medical practice or any of the malpractice liability concerns.

As a primary care physician, he works with a diverse patient population.

“Obstetrics is definitely something you get to do as a family doctor in the Navy,” he says. “You have exposure to many diseases and rare conditions that the civilian sector isn’t exposed to. You see tropical diseases that we don’t have in the U.S. It’s a great way to learn international medicine.”

But Bernstein cautions that the military is not for every physician, and he encourages those interested to see if the lifestyle is compatible with their desired career.

“It’s a formal way of living and there’s always a level of uncertainty,” he says. “It’s a lot of moving around, and your kids will be in different schools.”

But Bernstein says for those who join, it’s about taking pride in what you do.

“The military healthcare system is based on a foundation of primary care,” he says. “It’s valued at all levels. They realize that, and they respect that. That’s something you don’t always see [in the civilian sector]. It means a lot. Serving your country through primary care offers a large sense of pride.”

 

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