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Analysis

Physicians Pursue Several Strategies to Retire Heavy Student Debt Load

By Christopher Cheney  
   August 07, 2019

Approaches to repaying medical school debt include loan forgiveness programs, loan consolidation, living within a budget, and locum tenens opportunities.

Most physicians who graduated from medical school in 2015 or earlier are still carrying student loan debt, with one-third owing more than $250,000, a new survey found.

Medical school debt is believed to impact choice of specialty and to exert upward pressure on pricing for physician services. Annually, a new class of doctors graduates with student loans totaling $2.6 billion, with the median student debt per physician estimated at $194,000.

A new Weatherby Healthcare survey based on data collected from 500 practicing physicians nationwide who graduated from medical school at least four years ago found 65% of the doctors are still paying off student loans.

"Every physician has a unique situation, so it's important to carefully consider how the repayment strategy you choose will affect your future. Do your research, talk to colleagues who are further down the road in repaying their debts, and seek help from a loan repayment expert. Making the right choices for you early on can result in significant long-term savings," Weatherby President Bill Heller says.

The medical staffing company's survey generated several key data points:

  • 34% of indebted survey respondents expected to take at least a decade to pay off their student loans
     
  • Of the 35% of respondents who had paid off their student loans, 47% achieved the feat within two years of graduating medical school
     
  • 60% of respondents said that purchasing a home had increased their debt load and slowed repayment of their student loans
     
  • For repayment strategies, 66% were interested in loan forgiveness programs, 45% wanted to learn about loan consolidation and refinancing, 39% wanted to find out how to live within a budget, and 29% were interested in locum tenens opportunities

Comparing physician student debt to other college loans
 

Although physicians take on significantly more student loan debt than other college graduates, many can pay off their loans relatively quickly, Heller says.

"Like most professions, the amount of medical school debt can vary widely among physicians; based on which medical school they attend as well as their access to grants, scholarships, military benefits, and family support. Most physicians finish residency with more than $150,000 in student loans, and it's not uncommon for new doctors to have debt of $300,000 or more. Compare this to the general college graduate average of $29,800," he says.

As is the case for all college graduates, the time it takes physicians to pay off their student loans depends on several factors, including loan balance, specialty, work setting, pursuit of loan forgiveness, and repayment strategies, he says.

"According to a Wisconsin survey, the average time to pay off student loans for the general population of college graduates was 21.1 years. If a physician chooses to participate in an income-driven repayment plan, it can take 20 or even 25 years before they are debt free. However, it seems a minority choose this option. Of the physicians we surveyed who had already paid off their debt, 6% said it took more than 10 years to pay off their loan."

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Annually, a new class of doctors graduates medical school with student loans totaling about $2.6 billion.

According to a new survey, two-thirds of physicians who graduated from medical school at least four years ago are still carrying student loan debt.

For physicians who had paid off their student loans, the survey found nearly half retired their medical school debt within two years of graduation.


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