Editor’s note: This article is in Hammad’s voice but has been written jointly.
As the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) retires its financial literacy program, Canada’s medical trainees are facing rising debt, often worsened by their poor understanding of how to handle money.
Over the past few years, medical students, flush with lines of credit of more than $350,000, participated in speculative investments like cryptocurrencies. As markets tanked and interest rates soared, a crisis has come to fruition, one that demands increased financial education, not the sunsetting of a CMA heavyweight program.
I grew up in a home where there was little financial literacy. As a first-generation immigrant with no financial assistance, I came into medical school with significant student debt. I had access to an enormous line of credit that was quickly being drained by my $25,000 yearly tuition and living expenses. With scholarship availability inconsistent, I found myself penny pinching on food and avoiding social events just to stay afloat.
In 2021, as I was falling deeper into debt, many of my classmates were caught up in the “day trading” craze: gambling thousands of dollars from their lines of credit by buying in the newest “meme stock” or speculative investments. Some were also engaging in “scalping” – leveraging their line of credit to purchase and resell items that were in demand during the pandemic.
I was encouraged to get involved: “Hammad, you should get into this if you want to make some quick gains.” It was tempting because while I was spending hours applying for grants, government loans and looking for jobs, others were making the same amount of money in a matter of days. Though I didn’t participate, I can understand the draw to these activities in the face of increasing costs of living, rising tuition and limited ways to pay down debt, as the intensive medical curriculum makes it difficult to hold a job.
As I was falling deeper into debt, many of my classmates were caught up in the “day trading” craze.
This story is not a rare one. Currently, students are entering medical school saddled with significant debt from their previous degrees – some owing up to $100,000. This cycle puts students into further debt, with (rising) interest rates on their lines of credit compounding that debt. Some banks don’t require students to make payments on their loan principal or interest while they are still students, which is misinterpreted by some as not having to pay interest at all, resulting in even higher usage of debt, according to Stephanie Zhou, who is on the financial aid committee at the University of Toronto medical school.
What’s worse is that financial management during training is just the beginning; in essence, many family physicians become small business owners, billing provincial insurance programs and private companies for their work while paying rent, staff salaries and equipment costs.
The response from academic institutions has been mixed; some universities offer dedicated financial literacy curriculums while others offer one-off lectures. Such variability can be attributed (partially) to a lack of financial education in accreditation standards that all continuing medical education (CME) curricula must abide by, as made by the Committee of Accreditation of Canadian Medical Schools (CACMS).
The consequence of not having a uniform financial literacy curriculum across medical schools is that students are not equipped to handle debt, and don’t understand the long-term consequences of having high debt or poor spending habits. Not only has this taken away from students’ learning, but also influences their medical careers. Students are shifting away from family medicine, intimidated by the logistical and labour costs of a clinic and a relatively lower salary, instead opting to pursue higher paying specialties.
Grassroots initiatives are trying to fill the gaps. The Physicians Financial Independence online community, Physicians Financial Wellness conference (PFI Conference), and The Loonie Doctor Blog have garnered significant interest within the medical community.
These financial education initiatives have garnered positive feedback and have helped physicians improve their financial knowledge and empower a sense of control of their finances. The previous and current on-going demand and participation in these initiatives show that perhaps medical education organizations in Canada need to do more, not less, to bring financial literacy to future physicians.