Physician Frustration Grows, Income Falls -- But a Ray of Hope

Mark Crane


April 24, 2012

In This Article


Physician income overall has declined since 2010, yet there are tiny glimmers of hope in some specialties. Frustration is mounting, however, and doctors in every specialty are bracing for what they expect to be further income declines as healthcare elements are implemented, such as ACOs and required treatment and quality guidelines.

Those are some of the insights from Medscape's Physician Compensation Survey Report: 2012 Results. The report is based on a survey that garnered responses from more than 24,000 US physicians representing 25 specialties.

"Physicians' sense of worry may be greater than the reality, but it's understandable," said Judy Aburmishan, CPA, a partner in FGMK, LLC in Chicago, a firm that represents physicians and other healthcare providers. "Hospitals are buying up private practices both in primary care and the specialties. The heavy-handed message they send out is that if you don't join us, you won't survive. There is great uncertainty and fear about what healthcare reform will mean for physicians once it's fully implemented."

Some of the major findings from Medscape's 2012 report:

1. Dissatisfaction with medicine is intensifying, although a majority of physicians would again choose the same career path. In 2012, just over half of all physicians (54%) would choose medicine again as a career, far less than in the previous year's report, where 69% of physicians would choose medicine again.

2. The top-earning specialties in 2012 were the same as in the previous year, even though their incomes declined in general. In 2012, radiologists and orthopedic surgeons again topped the list at a mean income of $315,000, followed by cardiologists ($314,000) and anesthesiologists ($309,000). The same 4 specialties were in the leading positions in last year's survey. The bottom-earning specialties also remained similar: pediatrics ($156,000), family medicine ($158,000), and internal medicine ($165,000).

3. Who's up, who's down since 2010? "Decreased reimbursement" is the overall buzz-phrase, yet a minority of specialties saw modest gains. The biggest income increases were in ophthalmology (+9%), pediatrics (+5%), nephrology (+4%), oncology (+4%), and rheumatology (+4%). The largest declines were in general surgery
(-12%), orthopedic surgery (-10%), radiology (-10%), and neurology (-8%).

4. Do men or women earn more? Overall, male physicians earn 40% more than female physicians, although that difference is only 23% in primary care. Experts say that the difference is related to choice of specialties and lifestyle preferences that women choose.

5. Don't write off private practice! Although physicians are rushing toward employment, partners in private practice far outearn physicians in other work environments. Overall, partners in private practice earn significantly more than solo practice owners and employed physicians, who earn less than either group.

6. The "rich doctor" myth may be just that, although "rich" is relative. Overall, only 11% of physicians say they consider themselves rich, while about 45% say their incomes are no better than that of many nonphysicians, and another about 45% say, "My income probably qualifies me as rich, but I have so many debts and expenses that I don't feel rich." The specialties with the highest percentage of physicians who felt rich were pathology (15%), radiology, oncology, and gastroenterology (14% each).

7. Doctors in all specialties are swamped with paperwork. A third of physicians (33%) spend more than 10 hours per week on paperwork and administration.

8. One healthcare reform goal of reducing "unnecessary care" garners negative response. The vast majority (67%) of physicians said they won't reduce the amount of tests, procedures, and treatments they perform (in order to comply with insurer treatment guidelines) either because the guidelines aren't in their patients' best interests or because doctors still need to practice defensive medicine.


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