by Kenny Lin

First posted on first appeared in the AFP Community Blog and reposted on Common Sense MD on 12/2/2012

Kenny Lin, MD, DC-based family physician

The inexorable yearly rise of medical school tuition has led to corresponding increases in medical student debt. According to the American Medical Association, 86 percent of graduating medical students in 2011 had loans to repay, and their average debt was more than $160,000. The greater long-term income potential from choosing a subspecialist rather than a primary care career is only one of many factors that influence medical students’ specialty choices. That being said, my students increasingly ask if they will be able to repay their loans, support spouses and children, and save enough for retirement on a family physician’s income – a question that would have been unlikely to come up a generation ago.

In an innovative analysis published in Academic Medicine, researchers from the American Association of Medical Colleges and Boston University concluded that the answer is “yes.” Using economic modeling software, they examined variety of loan amounts and repayment scenarios projected against average household expenses in a high-cost urban area (Boston) and income levels for primary care and subspecialist physicians. The bottom line:

Our economic modeling of a physician’s household income and expenses across a range of medical school borrowing levels in high- and moderate-cost living areas shows that physicians in all specialties, including primary care, can repay the current median level of education debt. At the most extreme borrowing levels, even for physicians in comparatively lower-income primary care specialties, options exist to mitigate the economic impact of education debt repayment.

The authors defined “extreme” borrowing levels as $250,000 or greater, and noted that options for these highly indebted physicians include extended repayment terms and federal loan forgiveness programs such as the National Health Service Corps. They also noted that physicians who choose to live in rural or low-cost areas will have considerably more discretionary income after expenses.

Although this analysis did not address the equally (and some would say, more) important question of why the primary care-subspecialist income gap exists and what can be done to reduce it, these findings should be reassuring to students considering family medicine careers.