Half of General Surgeons Saw Income Drop in 2020

Tinker Ready

May 18, 2021

Some general surgeons, like many other physicians, saw their incomes drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, they worked fewer hours and saw fewer patients.

The Medscape General Surgeon Compensation Report 2021 checked in on income, hours, and work challenges in an atypical year marked by the COVID pandemic. Almost 18,000 physicians in 29 specialties shared information; 3% were surgeons.

About half of those general surgeons reported lower compensation in 2020. But the average salary for a general surgeon remained about the same in 2020, at $373,000, compared to $364,000 in 2019. Average salaries remained the same for all physicians.

About 60% of surgeons said they felt fairly compensated, compared to nearly 80% of oncologists and 69% of psychiatrists and plastic surgeons. But they continue to complain about rules and regulations — 23% of physicians, including surgeons, described it as their biggest challenge.

General surgeons and other physicians reported spending about 16 hours weekly on tasks outside of patient care, including time spent on paperwork, keeping electronic health records, participating in professional organizations, and keeping up with the literature. More than 20% of surgeons said that rules and regulations were their biggest challenge.

Independent physicians earned an average of $352,000 per year. Those who worked for a hospital or other institution earned about $300,000. For general surgeons, the self-employed earned $379,000. Employed surgeons earned $371,000.

The number of hours worked dropped from 58 to 56 per week for general surgeons. The average number of patients dropped about 13%, from 49 to 43 per week. Almost half of the surgeons — 45% — said they thought the drop in volume would be permanent.

All physicians said they saw fewer patients because of time spent on safety protocols, answering questions about COVID-19, and other factors. Pediatricians saw the largest average decline (78 patients per week, vs 64 in 2019 — down about 18%), followed by dermatologists, orthopedists, and otolaryngologists (each down about 15%).

About a third of general surgeons plan to participate in Medicare's Merit-based Incentive Payment System in 2021. The same proportion had yet to decide. About 12% participated in another Medicare program — the Alternative Payment Model — also designed to reward high-quality, cost-efficient care.

Physicians reported that incentive bonuses are usually based on productivity but can also be tied to patient satisfaction or clinical processes. For general surgeons, the average payment was 12%.

More than 75% of general surgeons reported that they would pick medicine again if they had to choose a profession, nearly the same as physicians overall (78%). This is the same percentage as last year and nearly the same among all physicians (77%). In the 2013 compensation report, which included almost 22,000 physician respondents, only 51% of physicians said they would choose medicine again as their career.

Most physicians reported feeling rewarded in their work. More than 25% of general surgeons pointed to relationships with patients as their main source of career satisfaction. The same percentage felt they were "making the world a better place." Twenty-four percent said "being very good" at what they do brings the most satisfaction.

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