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Medical Specialties Ranked by Student Loan Debt

According to the AMA, roughly one in four medical graduates exits medical school with $200,000 in student loan debt.

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Getting through medical school is expensive. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the four year cost to attend medical school for the class of 2020 exceeded $275,000 at more than half of all medical schools. At 19 schools, the four year cost exceeded $350,000.

It’s not surprising, therefore, to learn that 73% of medical school graduates report having medical school debt upon graduation.

In the latest Medscape report on wealth and debt, active physicians of all ages were asked whether they still carry college or medical school debt. As it turns out, the burden of debt is unequal across specialties.

Poll
How many years will it take to pay off your medical school debt?
Within 5 years
5 - 10 years
10 - 20 years
More than 20 years
I have no debt
Within 5 years
%
5 - 10 years
%
10 - 20 years
%
More than 20 years
%
I have no debt
%
Total votes: 771

The role of age

The age of a physician can also play a role in their level of debt. The more years a physician has been in practice, the more time they have had to pay down debt. Additional data Trusted Source Association of American Medical Colleges Highly respected medical organization Go to source from the AAMC indicates roughly 53% of all active physicians are under the age of 55. Specialties with fewer older physicians and larger percentages of the workforce being under 55 may correlate with higher levels of student debt.

Medical specialties ranked by proportion of physicians carrying student-loan debt

Medical Specialty% With Student Loan Debt% Under Age 55
1Emergency Medicine31%64.0%
2Critical Care29%76.3%
3Family Medicine28%51.0%
4Physical Medicine & Rehab27%48.1%
5Ob/Gyn25%52.0%
6Pediatrics24%52.3%
7Urology24%46.7%
8Plastic Surgery23%43.0%
9General Surgery23%49.0%
10Otolaryngology22%49.2%
11Psychiatry21%38.4%
12Dermatology20%55.2%
13Neurology20%40.7%
14Public Health & Preventive Medicine20%28.6%
15Pulmonary Disease20%7.6%
16Anesthesiology19%43.1%
17Internal Medicine19%51.2%
18Ophthalmology18%46.4%
19Radiology18%43.6%
20Rheumatology18%54.7%
21Oncology16%55.4%
22Allergy & Immunology15%49.4%
23Orthopedics15%39.4%
24Pathology14%29.1%
25Cardiology13%35.1%
26Nephrology13%60.2%
27Infectious Disease12%56.8%
28Gastroenterology11%49.2%
29Diabetes & Endocrinology11%58.4%

Other key insights

The data from the AAMC indicates that there is no difference in debt among male and female medical school graduates. Graduates of public medical schools have slightly more debt than graduates of private medical schools, although the difference is minimal. Private schools typically carry a higher sticker price, but may offer more grants and scholarships.

Debt levels also vary by race and ethnicity. Here is an overview of the percentage of graduates by race with education debt:

  • American Indian and Alaska Native: 80%
  • Asian, not Hispanic: 61%
  • Black, not Hispanic: 91%
  • Hispanic: 84%
  • White, not Hispanic: 75%
  • All others: 71%
  • All: 73%

The road to becoming debt-free

With the physician shortage in the U.S. only growing worse in light of COVID-19 burnout and other chronic, pre-pandemic factors, the ability to quickly pay off medical school loans and other education debt will likely continue to be a driving motivator when residents select a specialty.

Many states and federal programs already offer loan forgiveness as an incentive for physicians to practice primary care or work in underserved communities. And recently, some medical schools are offering free tuition to students demonstrating financial need.

More such efforts may be needed as medical school costs only increase, and as patients rely on healthcare providers more than ever.

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  1. Medscape Physician Wealth & Debt Report 2023.
    https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2023-compensation-wealth-debt-6016481
  2. Medscape Residents Salary & Debt Report 2021. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2021-residents-salary-debt-report-6014074
  3. The top 5 medical specialties with the highest student-loan debts. American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/residents-students/resident-student-finance/top-5-medical-specialties-highest-student-loan-debts
  4. Physician Education Debt and the Cost to Attend Medical School: 2020 Update.
    https://store.aamc.org/physician-education-debt-and-the-cost-to-attend-medical-school-2020-update.html
  5. Active Physicians by Age and Specialty, 2021.
    https://www.aamc.org/data-reports/workforce/data/active-physicians-age-specialty-2021
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