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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;28(5):10-16

This content conforms to AAFP criteria for CME.

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 income if you're unable to work, but there are differences in the types of injuries or illnesses they cover, the duration of the payments, and the wait time to receive compensation (i.e., elimination period). (See “Short-term vs. long-term.”) Some physicians may think they can rely on sick leave for short-term disabilities, but many employers have reduced paid sick days to levels where they're likely to run out long before the physician has fully recovered from even a short-term disability. Make sure you have both short-term and long-term disability insurance coverage.

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