Effect of Educational Debt on Emergency Medicine Residents: A Qualitative Study Using Individual Interviews

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Study objective:

In 2001, less than 20% of emergency medicine residents had more than $150,000 of educational debt. Our emergency medicine residents anecdotally reported much larger debt loads. Surveys have reported that debt affects career and life choices. Qualitative approaches are well suited to explore how and why such complex phenomena occur. We aim to gain a better understanding of how our emergency medicine residents experience debt.


We conducted individual semistructured interviews with emergency medicine residents. We collected self-reported data related to educational debt and asked open-ended questions about debt influence on career choices, personal life, future plans, and financial decisions. We undertook a structured thematic analysis using a qualitative approach based in the grounded theory method.


Median educational debt was $212,000. Six themes emerged from our analysis: (1) debt influenced career and life decisions by altering priorities; (2) residents experienced debt as a persistent source of background stress and felt powerless to change it; (3) residents made use of various techniques to negotiate debt in order to focus on day-to-day work; (4) personal debt philosophy, based on individual values and obtained from family, shaped how debt affected each individual; (5) debt had a normative effect and was acculturated in residency; and (6) residents reported a wide range of financial knowledge, but recognized its importance to career success.


Our emergency medicine residents' debt experience is complex and involves multiple dimensions. Given our current understanding, simple solutions are unlikely to be effective in adequately addressing this issue.

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