Background: Median indebtedness at graduation is now more than $170,000 for graduates of US Medical Schools. Debate still exists as to whether higher debt levels influence students to choose high paying non-primary care specialties. Notably, no previous research on the topic has taken into account cost of attendance when constructing a debt model, nor has any research examined the non-career major life decisions that medical students face.
Methods: Medical students were surveyed using an anonymous electronic instrument developed for this study. The survey was delivered through a link included in a study email and students were recruited from school wide listservs and through snowball sampling (students were encouraged to share a link to the survey with other medical students). No incentives were offered for survey completion.
Results: Responses were recorded from 102 US Allopathic medical schools (n=3,032), with 22 institutions (11 public, 11 private) meeting inclusion criteria of 10% student body response proportion (n=1,846). Students with higher debt relative to their peers at their home institution reported higher frequencies of feeling callous towards others, were more likely to choose a specialty with a higher average annual income, were less likely to plan to practice in underserved locations, and were less likely to choose primary care specialties. Students with higher aggregate amounts of medical student loan debt were more likely to report high levels of stress from their educational debt, to delay getting married and to report disagreement that they would choose to become a physician again, if given the opportunity to revisit that choice. Increases in both aggregate and relative debt were associated with delaying having children, delaying buying a house, concerns about managing and paying back educational debt, and worrying that educational debt will influence one's specialty choice.
Conclusions: Medical student debt and particularly debt relative to peers at the same institution appears to influence the way that students approach major life choices like when to start a family, when to buy a home, and what specialty to choose. Future research should take into account cost of attendance when looking for the impact of medical student debt on major life choices.
Keywords: burnout; debt; medical student; primary care; salary; specialty choice.