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Debt issues looming larger for students, residents: survey

Almost one-third of Canada's medical students - 30% - now expect to owe more than $100,000 by the time they graduate, the CMA's Canadian Collaborative Centre for Physician Resources (C3PR) reports.

It reached that conclusion after analysing data from the 2012 National Physician Survey (NPS), and points out that this proportion is twice as high as in 2004, when the first NPS was conducted.

The bad news does not end there.

"Those expecting debt of $160,000 or more represented only 1% of medical students in 2004, but accounted for 13% of NPS respondents in 2012," C3PR reports. It described the changes as "concerning."

The centre also reports similar debt expectations among residents, with one in five - 19% - expecting their debt load will surpass $160,000 by the time their training is completed. One-third expect debts of more than $100,000.

The C3PR report says medical students "do not appear to have firm plans yet for how they might pay off their debt in terms of specific choices related to their postgraduate training or initial practice." However, one-quarter (24%) reported they planned to select a specialty with a "higher earning potential."

Among residents, financial enticements offered by potential employers were seen as a prime method for reducing debt. In the 2012 NPS, for example, 32% of family medicine residents said they would practise in an area that offered these incentives.

The report concludes that a move to the US in order to pay down debt does not appear to be a popular option for new Canadian graduates.

"Luckily for Canada... new physicians are far more likely to use other methods, including working as a locum or taking a financial incentive, to knock back accumulated debt," it concludes.

CMA President Anna Reid says the debt issue has been growing in importance for students and residents since Canadian medical schools began deregulating tuition fees 15 years ago - a practice that has since been adopted in most provinces.

"This type of mortgage-sized debt is a relatively new phenomenon in Canada, and as this report shows the debt loads appear to be moving in one direction - upward," says Reid. She said that is why the CMA has called for a pan-Canadian debt-relief program.

"We believe that high tuition fees, coupled with insufficient financial support systems, have a significant and detrimental impact not only on current and potential students, but also on Canadian health care and access to medical services."

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