Nearly two-thirds of physicians carry medical school debt, survey finds

Nearly two-thirds of actively practicing physicians still carry debt from medical school, according to a new national survey.

Of those doctors, 32% had more than $250,000 in debt remaining, according to the study by Weatherby Healthcare, a locum tenens agency that places physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners.

The company surveyed more than 500 actively practicing physicians in the U.S. and asked them about medical student debt, which has been an increasing problem garnering national attention.

Of the responding physicians, who all graduated from medical school in 2015 or earlier, 65% said they are still carrying debt from medical school. Of that group, 80% had more than $100,000 in remaining debt.

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The high cost of medical school loans weighs heavily on doctors for many years following graduation, the survey found, as one-third of respondents (34%) expect to take at least 10 years to pay off their student loans.

However, more than a third of respondents (35%) had paid off their student loans, with nearly half (47%) paying off their loans within two years of graduation. They credited a blend of strategies, such as managing finances, pursuing additional work, and consolidating debt.

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Respondents had advice to other physicians hoping to pay off that debt at a faster rate. The most common advice provided was to live as frugally as possible, which includes living below your means, putting any extra income toward paying off debt and pursuing additional work through locum tenens or picking up extra shifts.

“We work every day with physicians who are struggling to repay medical school debt,” said Bill Heller, president of Weatherby Healthcare. “We’re pleased that many physicians use locum tenens to pay off their debt faster, and that they recommend this option to other physicians as a way to decrease debt.”

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As well as debt from student loans, many physicians have additional debt from buying a home (60%) or the cost of raising a family (50%). Respondents indicated they’re interested in loan forgiveness programs, loan consolidation and refinancing, learning how to budget and working locum tenens as ways to pay off debt.

National student loan debt currently stands at $1.4 trillion, with medical students bearing a larger-than-average financial burden after graduation. Some 75% of medical students leave school with education debt, holding an average balance of $196,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Student loan debt has raised concerns that it is keeping physicians from starting or joining private practices, working in rural and underserved communities and influencing their choice of specialties as they chose higher-paying specialties rather than primary care.