Study: Medical School Debt on the Rise

Sep. 11, 2017

medical school debtNew research shows that the amount the average medical student will owe upon completing their degrees has risen to almost $190,000. This study also indicates that debt is becoming more concentrated, potentially putting a career in medicine out of reach for students who do not come from wealthy backgrounds.

The study, which was co-authored by Benjamin George, M.D., M.P.H., a resident in the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) Department of Neurology, Justin Grischkan, a medical student in the URMC School of Medicine and Dentistry, and Ray Dorsey, M.D., the David M. Levy Professor of Neurology, appears in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

The new research finds that the average debt that medical school graduates carry has climbed from $161,739 in 2010 to $179,000 in 2016 (adjusted to 2016 U.S. dollars).  Students intending to specialize in emergency medicine, radiology, and psychiatry carried the most debt.

At the same time, the study shows an increase from 16 percent to 27 percent over the same period in the number of student who graduate medical school debt free.  Specialties such as radiology, dermatology, neurology, OB/GYN, ophthalmology, and pathology saw the greatest increases in debt-free medical school graduates. 

While this trend appears to be positive, a closer examination of the data indicates that wealth may play a factor.  Scholarship funding has declined among debt-free students, meaning that their education was likely paid for with personal contributions.  This finding suggests that a growing number of medical students come from wealthier backgrounds and, when paired with the overall increase in debt, indicates that medical education debt is actually being concentrated in fewer individuals.

The authors note that this growth and concentration of debt could make the upward mobility associated with a medical education unattainable for individuals who do not have the personal financial means and impair efforts to diversify the physician workforce. 

Additional co-authors of the study include Krisda Chaiyachati and David Asch with the University of Pennsylvania and Ari Friedman with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.