They’re most willing to work in poverty-stricken areas.

Doctors graduating with the most student debt are willing to work for the least pay.

Between 2007 and 2016, doctors with the highest student debt were 17 percentage points more likely to work in “medically underserved areas” than doctors with the lowest student debt, says a new study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

But it’s not completely altruistic of them. These areas have student loan repayment plans in place for younger, indebted doctors to help improve the community. Before we get too far into why they’re working there, let’s take a look at what it costs to become a doctor.

What medical school costs

The study found a connection between doctors working in poverty-stricken areas with a student loan repayment plan. Most medical school students don’t have time to work jobs while in school. Unless their family helps with tuition and other medical school costs, they have to borrow.

The average annual medical school tuition at a public school is $28,570, while private schools charge $47,052. In 2016, the typical medical school student graduated with $240,331 in student loans. That number increased 17 percent from five years before.

Medical students borrow loans to attend college with hopes of paying it back with the income associated with a doctor. The monthly pay a new doctor receives doesn’t cover loan payments and living costs. The typical amount of money medical school graduates pay back monthly is nearly the same as they earn, according to one of the study’s co-authors. Many of which struggle to pay what they owe while still affording to eat.

“The average monthly student loan payment for a new physician is around $2,500,” says co-author of the study Dr. Scheckel. “Unfortunately, the average monthly income is only about $3,000, so residents end up choosing between deferring loan repayment and allowing their loan interest to balloon or living very, very poorly.”

Student loan repayment plans bring medicine to where it’s needed

The study points out that there is a common belief that doctors with higher debt avoid practicing in these areas, due to lower pay. This study debunks that myth. Because of state and federal programs are in place to attract indebted doctors to areas they are needed most.

The federal government offers several types of these programs designed to help borrowers pay back what they owe.

In the 9-year period that the study analyzed, the number of new doctors interested in practicing medicine in underserved areas went up 8 percentage points. And it was most noted among doctors with the largest amount of debt. Thirty-seven percent of doctors in the highest debt bracket planned to practice in underserved areas, compared to 20 percent in the lowest debt bracket.

Sixty-eight percent of those who planned to work in medically underserved areas also said they would use a federal loan repayment program. Only 35 percent of doctors not planning to work in medically underserved areas said they planned to do the same.

“The largest take away is that loan repayment programs are working as intended and helping bring much needed medical expertise to medically underserved communities,” says co-author of the study Dr. Jesse Richards. “We found a strong association among factors of increased debt load, intention to use a loan-repayment program, and intention to practice in underserved areas.”

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About the Author

Joe Pye

Joe Pye

Joe Pye is the managing editor of In 2016, Pye started writing about debt and personal finance while attending Florida Atlantic University, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the student-run newspaper, the University Press. Before graduating with a bachelor's degree in multimedia journalism, Pye placed as a finalist for the Mark of Excellence award by the Society of Professional Journalists Region 3 for feature writing and in-depth reporting. In 2021, Pye earned First Place in the Green Eyeshade awards for "Best Blog" for his side-project Since taking a full-time position here in 2018, Pye has become a certified debt management professional who's applied what he's learned to his personal life by paying down more than $22,000 worth of combined credit card, student loan, auto and tax debt in less than two years.

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