Medical credit cards: What is the best option?

Man sitting at desk, holding a credit cardImage: Man sitting at desk, holding a credit card

In a Nutshell

Medical credit cards can help you spread a big medical bill across multiple payments. These cards may be offered at your doctor’s, optometrist’s or dentist’s office. But they can end up costing you with high interest rates and deferred interest. Before opening a new medical credit card account, take a moment to consider your options.
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Medical credit cards can take the bite out of a big medical bill — but proceed with caution.

Next time you have a big medical bill to pay, your healthcare provider may invite you to sign up for a medical credit card as a payment plan to cover the costs of the services. These cards are unique in that they can only be used to pay for healthcare expenses. But like other credit cards, you need to consider any promotional 0% interest period, the card’s ongoing interest rate and minimum payment requirements to figure out if a medical credit card is right for you.

These cards can be helpful, but you likely have other options to consider as well. Before agreeing to sign up for a new credit card, check to see if a traditional credit card might offer a longer 0% interest period or if a personal loan might be a better fit for your needs.

What is a medical credit card?

A medical credit card is a win-win for your medical provider. It lets your provider offer a flexible payment plan without needing to actually manage the payments once you walk out of the office. If you’re approved for the card, the credit card issuer pays your doctor upfront and works with you to pay off the loan over time.

Once you have the card, it acts like most other credit cards. You’ll have a minimum monthly bill and you may need to pay interest for the expenses, depending on the terms and how quickly you pay down the medical debt.

These cards can only be used for medical purchases and are generally limited to certain healthcare provider networks.

Learn more about the risks of paying medical debt with credit cards

What to watch out for with medical credit cards

Signing up for a credit card during a time of stress (like discussing the cost of a medical procedure at the doctor’s office) is generally not ideal. If possible, it could be helpful to come up with a plan to pay for a medical procedure before entering the doctor’s office so you have a chance to consider your options.

The biggest risk with medical credit cards is the promotional 0% APR. Many of these cards offer a 0% interest period, but these generally come in the form of deferred interest.

Deferred interest means that your account is still accruing interest charges on the full amount of the original debt during the promotional period. If you don’t pay off the full balance by the end of the promotional period, or if you miss a payment, you’ll have to pay all of that accrued interest, adding to your costs.

The best medical credit cards

Because many medical credit cards are only accepted within a specific healthcare network, your choice in cards may be dictated by your doctor. But if you have the opportunity to choose, here are three medical credit cards to consider.

Best for 0% introductory period: CareCredit

CareCredit offers promotional financing, with 0% purchase APR for its shorter term options of six months to 24 months, depending on your credit. This low APR offer can give you breathing room by breaking a large medical bill into smaller pieces over the repayment period. There’s a 26.99% regular variable purchase APR for nonpromotional purchases.

Be sure to pay off the debt in full before the promotional term ends. If you have any debt remaining on your account by the time the period ends, or if you miss a payment, you’ll be liable for the full amount of interest that would’ve accrued since you opened the card. With a regular variable APR of 26.99%, that could be a hefty bill.

The CareCredit credit card can be used for cosmetic surgery, dental treatment, eye exams, LASIK, hearing services, weight loss surgery and even veterinary costs, among other services.

Learn more with our review of the CareCredit card.

Best medical credit card for low ongoing interest fees: Wells Fargo Health Advantage® Card

The Wells Fargo Health Advantage® Card offers a relatively low purchase interest rate of 12.99% APR. While it’s still a good idea to plan to pay down your debt as quickly as possible, this card could be an option if you need to cover necessary procedures.

Your doctor’s office may offer this card with a promotional 0% APR, with terms ranging from six months to 18 months. Like other medical credit cards, this special terms period comes with deferred interest, so if you don’t pay down the debt in full before the period ends, you have to pay interest on the full balance.

This card can be used at thousands of dental, hearing, vision and veterinary offices.

Best for people with low credit scores: AccessOne Medcard

While not strictly a credit card, AccessOne Medcard is a common flexible payment plan offered by healthcare providers. AccessOne’s interest rates vary, but 0% interest is an option.

AccessOne stands out in accepting all applicants, regardless of their credit. It still does a credit check, but it says it won’t report your payment activity to credit bureaus.

Alternatives to medical credit cards

If you can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs for healthcare, here are a few alternatives to consider.

  • Talk to your provider. If you need help paying your medical bills, talk to your provider before you put the bill on a credit card. You may be able to ask for a discount or negotiate a lower bill. Also, many hospitals have “charity care” or financial assistance programs that could help.
  • Use a normal credit card, ideally one with a long 0% interest introductory period. If you have a plan to pay down the debt before the intro period is up (and verify that the card doesn’t have the “deferred interest” catch that you’ll find with many medical credit cards in case you can’t), this could be a helpful option. That said, because credit card interest rates can be very high, consider your options before paying with a credit card.
  • Use a medical loan, which are personal loans tailored for medical expenses.

About the author: Sean McQuay is a long-time personal finance nerd. He’s passionate about budgets, credit cards, and earning useful rewards with minimal effort. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a father to three rambunctious kids. Read more.