Nation’s Primary Care Doctors May Confront More Debt, Lower Wages, Studies Find

Dec 5, 2012, 9:10 AM

Two new studies show the nation’s younger primary care physicians may find it hard to recover from their medical school debt.

Primary care physicians who graduate with a median amount of debt and have a salary that is typical for the field can pay off their debt within 10 years, even if they live in a high cost residential area, according to a study from researchers at Boston University and the American Association of Medical Colleges, published in Academic Medicine. But young primary care doctors with debt that is above average—$200,000 or more—may have to employ “trade-offs and compromises” to support their repayment. These may include: extended repayment plans, increasing the interest repaid and the number of repayment years, living in a lower-cost area, or joining a federal loan forgiveness program that requires a service obligation such as practicing in a medically underserved area.

There are more sobering statistics for primary care doctors: a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds their earnings have grown more slowly than the salaries of other health care professionals. From 1987 to 2010, the average doctor’s earnings grew 9.6 percent; pharmacists’ earnings increased by 44 percent, and dentists earnings grew by 23 percent.

“It is possible that there are some specialties that have done extremely well in the past 10 or 15 years,” Amitabh Chandra, PhD, study co-author and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program faculty member at Harvard University, told Reuters Health. The slow growth for doctors—compared to other medical professions—is most likely due to lagging salaries of primary care physicians, he said. "If as a country we want more people to go into primary care, this anemic, jaundiced earnings growth is not going to be a motivator to get people to join primary care.”

What do you think? Should more be done to help medical students who go into primary care lower or repay their debt? Are slow-growing salaries a deterrent for medical students to enter this field? Register below to leave a comment.

Read the study in Academic Medicine.
Read the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.