A Practical Guide to Physician Disability Insurance


Insurance policies can keep you financially whole if a disability reduces your earning potential, but it's important to choose the right combination of coverage.

Fam Pract Manag. 2021 Sep-Oct;28(5):10-16.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations.

Like all workers, physicians sometimes develop disabilities caused by physical or mental illness or trauma that reduce their earning potential. Disability insurance is a key tool to ensure financial security in those situations.

More than 25% of 20-year-olds in the U.S. will become disabled before reaching retirement age,1 and professionals are more likely to suffer a severe disability that impedes their ability to work than to die prematurely, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).2 Almost 3% (25,575 out of 954,830) of full-time employed physicians and surgeons in the 2017 Census reported a disability, such as hearing loss (50.3%), difficulty walking (27.9%), visual impairment (24.5%), difficulty with independent living (10.1%) or self-care (9%), and cognitive difficulty (8.8%).3 More than half of physicians with disabilities were of retirement age, but almost 30% were under 45.3

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its amendments require employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to qualified applicants or employees with disabilities (see “Definitions”).4 Requesting accommodations may allow newly disabled physicians to stay in their position in some cases, but if they can no longer meet the requirements of their job description even with appropriate accommodation, they face possible termination.

Research has shown that becoming disabled limits physicians' career choices and trajectories.5 This means that physicians with a new disability often have to cope with not only the loss of function but also sudden and significant income loss. At the same time, they may face additional expenses for treatment or rehabilitation. Adequate disability insurance coverage can ensure physicians don't lose income.

The following is a guide to finding the right coverage, from authors who are themselves physicians with disabilities.


  • Physicians who become disabled may face a loss of earning potential that makes it impossible to retain their current standard of living. Disability insurance is key in those situations.

  • There are several types of policies (employer-provided, association-provided, personal, etc.) and some may cancel out the benefits of others.

  • Premiums are generally lower early in physicians' careers, when they're younger and less likely to have preexisting medical conditions.


There is often confusion about the benefits, coverage options, and costs of disability insurance. Here's what you need to know.

Types of benefits. Disability insurance benefits are classified as either short-term or long-term, with optional coverage often offered as “riders” to supplement basic policies, for an extra cost. Both short- and long-term disability insurance will replace


show all author info

Dr. Churgay is chair of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine's Persons and Physicians With Disabilities Collaborative. She is a retired clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Health System's Department of Family Medicine....

Dr. Smith is a clinical professor at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine's Department of Family Medicine. She is deputy editor for Essential Evidence Plus.

Dr. Cain is a clinical professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine's Department of Family Medicine. He is chair of the Amputee Coalition's board of directors and a past president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations.


show all references

1. The faces and facts of disability: facts. Social Security Administration. Accessed July 16, 2021. https://www.ssa.gov/disabilityfacts/facts.html...

2. Understanding disability insurance for physicians. American Medical Association. 2020. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.ama-assn.org/residents-students/career-planning-resource/understanding-disability-insurance-physicians

3. 2017 American community survey. U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed July 6, 2021. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/

4. Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. U.S. Department of Justice. Updated 2017. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.ada.gov/2010_regs.htm

5. Neal-Boylan L, Hopkins A, Skeete R, Hartmann SB, Iezzoni LI, Nunez-Smith M. The career trajectories of health care professionals practicing with permanent disabilities. Acad Med. 2012;87(2):172–178.

6. Sigel Z. What is accident insurance? Policygenius. May 9, 2019. Accessed July 19, 2021. https://www.policygenius.com/disability-insurance/what-is-accident-insurance/

7. Inman R. Disability insurance for physicians: a definitive guide. Financial Residency. Accessed July 20, 2021. https://financialresidency.com/disability-insurance-for-physicians/

8. Wolstenholm J. Physician disability insurance: 2021 ultimate guide. LeverageRx. Updated July 6, 2021. Accessed July 20, 2021. https://www.leveragerx.com/disability-insurance/physician-disability-insurance/

9. U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators. The state of U.S. health, 1990–2010: burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors. JAMA. 2013;310(6):591–606.

10. Schroeder R, Brazeau CMLR, Zackin F, et al. Do state medical board applications violate the Americans with Disabilities Act? Acad Med. 2009;84(6):776–781.

11. How you earn credits. Social Security Administration. Publication No. 05-10072. January 2021. Accessed July 23, 2021. https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10072.pdf


Copyright © 2021 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact fpmserv@aafp.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions

CME Quiz


Jan-Feb 2022

Access the latest issue
of FPM journal

Read the Issue

FPM E-Newsletter

Sign up to receive FPM's free, weekly e-newsletter, "Quick Tips & Insights."

Sign Up Now