Americans with Medical Debt Are More Worried about Making Payments than Getting Better

December 8, 2021

An annual survey from Discover Personal Loans also finds six in 10 Americans took steps to cover an unexpected expense amid the pandemic.

A new survey from Discover Personal Loans revealed 58% of Americans took steps to address an unexpected expense since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they felt prepared to handle these expenses varied. Regarding medical expenses specifically, more than four in 10 say they don’t feel prepared to handle these surprise costs.

For those with existing medical expenses, 53% say the pandemic caused them to take on new medical debt, adding to the stress many are already feeling. In fact, Discover’s survey found Americans with medical debt are more anxious about the cost of their medical services than their health; 63% of Americans report that they are anxious about paying for medical debt, compared to 47% who worry about getting better.

“People should be more focused on getting and staying well, rather than feeling held back by medical bills,” said Matt Lattman, vice president of personal loans at Discover said. “If there are gaps between what you owe, what insurance will cover and what’s left in savings, turning to a personal loan might allow someone to pay off medical debt or other expenses in one lump sum, with a lower interest rate than other financial vehicles, and without hidden fees.”

Medical debt forcing difficult choices

In addition to anxiety, medical debt has led to other challenging and potentially harmful choices. Eight in 10 of those with existing medical debt say they have postponed medical care because of the cost, and medical debt has also caused Americans to forego financial commitments:

Care put off by Americans with medical debt, because of cost:

Financial commitments delayed due to medical debt

Routine checkups


Stop paying other bills


Purchasing medication


Skip vacations


Preventative testing


Stop spending on dining and entertainment


Being seen for a sickness


Skip saving for retirement




Skip adding to my emergency savings


X-rays or scans


Pay the minimum payment, and no more, for my credit cards


A treatment plan recommended by my doctor


Stop saving for my child’s college


Seeing a specialist


According to Discover’s survey, nearly 3 in 4 Americans with medical debt have more than $2,000 in outstanding payments. And to make these payments, more people with medical debt report using their credit card, 41%, to pay for their care, over their medical insurance, 38%. Others also cited leveraging payment plans from their hospital, 27%, and personal loans, 22%.

Regardless of current medical debt, 58% of Americans addressed an unexpected expense because of the pandemic

Americans most frequently needed to cover unexpected expenses such as auto and home repairs, and emergency expenses. To pay for these unexpected bills, consumers say they resorted to tapping their emergency savings, borrowing money from loved ones and paying their bills later than usual.

What type of unexpected expenses did you need to cover? (Select all that apply)


Since the start of the pandemic, which, if any, of the following have you done to cover an unexpected expense?

Loss of income



Tapped into my emergency savings


Auto repairs



Borrowed money from friends of family


Home repairs



Paid some bills later than usual


Emergency medical expenses



Put large expenses on my credit card


Beyond helping with unexpected expenses, personal loans can help improve consumers’ financial situation. For example, medical debt can be consolidated with other debt, potential saving hundreds, if not thousands, dollars in interest while also simplifying debt to one set regular monthly payment. According to a 2021 Discover Personal Loans survey, 85% of surveyed customers told us taking out a Discover personal loan for debt consolidation helped improve their financial future.1

“For many, unplanned costs during the past year created roadblocks in financial journeys, especially for people who were already feeling the strain from other areas of debt and expenses,” Lattman said. “If people do find themselves in one of these situations, the important thing to know is that there are options available, like personal loans, to help bridge gaps in savings while simplifying multiple payments with a fixed payment amount.”

About the Survey

A national survey of 1,515 U.S. residents ages 18 and up was commissioned by Discover and conducted by Dynata (formerly Research Now/SSI), an independent survey research firm, between September 23 and September 27, 2021. The maximum margin of sampling error was +/-3 percentage points with a 95 percent level of confidence. Generations are defined as: Generation Z, born after 1997; millennials, born between 1981 and 1996; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980; and Baby Boomers+, born before 1964.

About Discover

Discover Financial Services (NYSE: DFS) is a digital banking and payment services company with one of the most recognized brands in U.S. financial services. Since its inception in 1986, the company has become one of the largest card issuers in the United States. The company issues the Discover card, America's cash rewards pioneer, and offers private student loans, personal loans, home loans, checking and savings accounts and certificates of deposit through its banking business. It operates the Discover Global Network comprised of Discover Network, with millions of merchant and cash access locations; PULSE, one of the nation's leading ATM/debit networks; and Diners Club International, a global payments network with acceptance around the world. For more information, visit

1Figure from an online customer survey conducted September 13 to September 27, 2021. A total of 619 Discover personal loan debt consolidation customers were interviewed about their most recent Discover personal loan. All results @ a 95% confidence level. Respondents opened their personal loan between January and July 2021 for the purpose of consolidating debt. Agree includes respondents who ‘Somewhat Agree’ and ‘Strongly Agree’.

Robert Weiss

Source: Discover Financial Services