Debt and the Emerging Physician Workforce: The Relationship Between Educational Debt and Family Medicine Residents’ Practice and Fellowship Intentions

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PurposeEducational debt is increasing and may affect physicians’ career choices. High debt may influence family medicine residents’ initial practice setting and fellowship training decisions, adversely affecting the distribution of primary care physicians. The purpose of this study was to determine whether debt was associated with graduating family medicine residents’ practice and fellowship intentions.MethodThe authors completed a cross-sectional secondary analysis of 2014 and 2015 American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM) examination registration questionnaire data and ABFM administrative data. They used multivariate logistic regression to determine whether educational debt was associated with graduating residents’ practice (ownership and type) and fellowship intentions.ResultsMost residents (89.7%; 3,368) intended to pursue an employed position, but this intention was not associated with their debt. Residents with high debt ($150,000–$249,999) had lower odds of intending to work for a government organization (odds ratio [OR] 0.57; confidence interval [CI] 0.41–0.79). Those with high or very high debt (> $250,000) had lower odds of choosing academic practice (OR 0.55, CI 0.36–0.85 and OR 0.62, CI 0.40–0.96, respectively) or a geriatrics fellowship (OR 0.36, CI 0.20–0.67 and OR 0.29, CI 0.15–0.55, respectively).ConclusionsHigh educational debt may contribute to national shortages of academic primary care physicians and geriatricians. Existing National Health Service Corps loan repayment opportunities may not offer adequate incentives to primary care physicians with high debt. The medical community should advocate for policies that better align financial incentives with workforce needs.

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