Neurologists' Pay Gets a Boost, Most Happy With Career Choice

Megan Brooks

May 21, 2020

Neurologists continue to be on the lower end of the physician compensation ladder, but they made more this year than last, and they continue to enjoy their profession, findings from the newly released Medscape Neurologist Compensation Report 2020 show.

Neurologists' average annual income this year rose to $280,000, up from $267,000 last year. More than half of neurologists (53%) feel fairly compensated, similar to last year's percentage.

Neurologists are below the middle earners of all physician specialities. At $280,000 in annual compensation for patient care, neurologists rank ninth from the bottom, just below allergists/immunologists ($301,000) but ahead of psychiatrists ($268,000), rheumatologists ($262,000), and internists ($251,000).

Orthopedists are the top earners ($511,000 annual pay), followed by plastic surgeons ($479,000), otolaryngologists ($455,000), and cardiologists ($438,000), according the overall Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2020, which covers US physicians as a whole. The survey included more than 17,000 physicians in over 30 specialties.

COVID-19 Impact

An important caveat is that the data for this year's report were collected prior to February 10, 2020, and therefore reflect physician salary and income prior to the COVID-19 crisis, which has had a huge impact on physicians.

For example, data show that since the start of the crisis, physician practices have seen a 55% dip in revenue and a 60% dip in patient volume on average. Hospitals and physician groups nationwide have implemented layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts.

In March, 43,000 healthcare workers were laid off; 9% of independent medical practices reported that they had closed their practices, at least temporarily.

There continues to be a gender pay gap in neurology, with male neurologists earning about 26% more than their female peers ($299,000 vs $237,000). Among all specialists, men earn 31% more than women, similar to last year's figure of 33%. There continues to be a 25% gender pay gap among primary care physicians.

More than half of all physicians (56%) say they receive an incentive bonus. Neurologists report that they are eligible for an annual incentive bonus of $35,000. Average annual incentive bonuses are highest among orthopedists ($96,000) and lowest among family medicine physicians ($24,000).

Close to one third of physicians overall who receive incentive bonuses say the prospect of receiving the bonus has encouraged them to work longer hours. A higher percentage of neurologists (41%) say their potential bonus influenced them to increase their work hours.

Fifty-eight percent of neurologists achieve more than three quarters of their potential annual incentive bonus. On average, neurologists achieve about two thirds of their potential bonus, the same proportion as for physicians overall.

However, COVID-19 may change that. Experts who were interviewed recently by Medscape noted that productivity benchmarks for physicians are likely to be lowered in light of plunging patient numbers from COVID-19, and bonuses are expected to take a hit.

Happy at Work

On average, male neurologists spend 37.7 hours per week seeing patients, somewhat more hours per week than female neurologists (36.1 hours); the average for all physicians is 37.9 hours per week.

Bureaucratic tasks continue to be a burden for physicians in all specialties. On average, neurologists spend 16.9 hours per week on paperwork and administration, about the same as physicians overall (15.6 hours).

Intensivists top the list regarding such tasks (19.1 hours), followed by internists (18.5), infectious disease physicians (18.5), and physiatrists (18.3). Anesthesiologists and ophthalmologists spend the least amount of time on paperwork/administration (10.0 and 9.8 hours per week, respectively).

What is most rewarding about being a neurologist? Being good at what they do/finding answers, diagnoses tops the list (33%), followed by making the world a better place/helping others (26%), relationships with and gratitude from patients (18%), and making good money at a job they like (11%). A few cited teaching (5%) and pride in their profession (4%)

The most challenging part of practicing neurology is having to follow so many rules and regulations (26%). Other challenges include having to work long hours (18%), dealing with difficult patients (17%), trouble getting fair reimbursement (13%), and working with electronic health records (10%).

Despite the challenges, if they had to do it all over again, 73% of neurologists would still choose medicine as a career, and 86% would again choose neurology.

Other key findings in the latest report regarding neurologists include the following:

  • At 18%, neurologists rank near the middle among physicians with regard to losing money on denied or resubmitted claims. Plastic surgery and emergency medicine have the highest percentage of claims denied or resubmitted (28% and 22%, respectively). One study found that, on average, 63% of denied claims are recoverable, but healthcare professionals spend about $118 per claim on appeals.

  • 29% of neurologists say they use physician assistants (PAs) to treat patients in their practices, and 53% use nurse practitioners (NPs); 38% use neither for patient care. Of neurologists who work with PAs and NPs in their offices, 49% say these employees have helped boost profitability.

  • Two thirds of neurologists say they will continue taking new and current Medicare/Medicaid patients; none say they will not take new Medicare patients; and 26% are undecided.

  • Neurologists participate in various payment methods; 78% are reimbursed via insurance, 35% have fee-for-service arrangements, and 28% are in accountable care organizations (ACO).

  • 39% of neurologists expect to participate in the merit-based incentive payment system (MIPS) option, and 10% expect to participate in alternative payment models (APMs).

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