Medical student loan debt has increased by leaps and bounds over the past few decades, and this increased debt load affects not only physicians but also the medical practice as a whole. According to the 2012 Physician Compensation Report, physicians are the highest paid professionals in the country, with annual salaries ranging from a low of $156,000 for pediatricians to a high of $315,000 for radiologists. However, 49 percent of survey respondents said they did not feel fairly compensated, and 45 percent stated that they had so much debt that they didn’t feel wealthy. Higher medical debt has the potential to reshape the medical landscape by causing students to select higher-paying specialties, which creates shortages in critical practice areas.

2013 Debt Statistics

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the class of 2013 had an average student loan debt of $169,901, which was up 2 percent from the class of 2012. Graduates from public medical schools had an average student loan debt of $162,736, which was up 4 percent from the previous year. Private medical school graduates had an average medical school loan debt of $181,058, which was a 1 percent decrease from 2012.

Drilling Deeper

Of the 2013 graduating class, 87 percent of public medical school students graduated in debt, while 84 percent of private medical school students graduated in debt. In addition, 62 percent of public medical school graduates had more than $150,000 in debt, and 66 percent of private medical school graduates had more than $150,000 in debt. Of those, 14 percent of public medical school students graduated with more than $250,000 in debt, while 27 percent of private medical school students graduated with more than $250,000 in medical school debt.

Historical Data

For the period 1988 to 2011, the AAMC reports that student loan debt for medical students rose significantly for the first 20 years and then stabilized. In 1988, the mean education debt for the average medical student was $38,500. Ten years later in 1998, it had more than doubled to $85,200. In 2008, the mean education debt for the average medical student rose to $154,600. From 2009 through 2011, the average medical student loan debt was $156,500, $157,900 and $161,300, respectively.

Contributing Factors

According to AAMC data, tuition and fees at private medical schools increased by 50 percent from 1994 to 2004. During the same period, public medical school tuition increased by 133 percent. In addition to rising tuition costs, accrued interest rates contributed to higher medical school debt. These factors are troubling to the American Medical Association, which states that high medical school debt decreases the number of primary care physicians as students choose to pursue higher paying specialties. Medical school is disproportionately cost-prohibitive to low-income and minority students, which decreases the level of diversity among physicians. The high debt load increases the probability that residents will work additional hours -- which can be unhealthy and may cause residents to become depressed and pessimistic about their financial future.