Family Physicians' Compensation Levels Stable in Pandemic

Marcia Frellick

May 18, 2021

Family physicians again ranked near the bottom in average earnings, but pay increased slightly this year, to $236,000, up from $234,000 last year, even as many practices saw a decrease in hours and patient visits during the pandemic.

Only pediatricians earned less ($221,000) according to the Medscape Family Physician Compensation Report 2021. Plastic surgeons topped this year's list, at $526,000, followed by orthopedists, at $511,000, and cardiologists, at $459,000.

Family physicians ranked in the middle of specialties in terms of the percentages of physicians who thought they were fairly compensated: 57% of family physicians said they were fairly paid, and 79% of oncologists said they were. Only 44% of infectious disease physicians said they were fairly compensated.

Survey answers indicate, though, that pay isn't driving family physicians' satisfaction.

Only 10% of family physicians in the survey said that "making good money at a job I like" was the most rewarding aspect of the job. The top two answers by far were "gratitude/relationships with patients" (chosen by 34%) and "knowing I'm making the world a better place" (27%). Respondents could choose more than one answer.

Despite the small uptick in earnings overall in the specialty, more than one third of family physicians (36%) reported a decline in compensation in this year's survey, which included 18,000 responses from physicians in 29 specialties.

Male family physicians continue to be paid much more than their female colleagues, this year 29% more, widening the gap from 26% last year. Overall, men in primary care earned 27% more than their female colleagues, and male specialists earned 33% more.

As for decline in patients seen in some specialties, family physicians are holding their own.

Whearas pediatricians have seen a drop of 18% in patient visits, family physicians saw a decline of just 5%, from an average of 81 to 77 patients per week.

Most Expect Return to Normal Pay Within 3 Years

Most family physicians (83%) who incurred financial losses this year said they expect that income will return to normal within 3 years. More than one third of that group (38%) said they expect compensation to get back to normal in the next year.

Almost all of the family physicians who lost income (91%) pointed the finger at COVID-19. Respondents could choose more than one answer, and 18% said other factors were also to blame.

Family physicians averaged $27,000 in incentive bonuses, higher than those in internal medicine, pediatrics, and psychiatry. Orthopedists had by far the highest bonuses, at $116,000.

For family physicians who received a bonus this year, the amount equaled about 12% of their salary, up from 10% last year. Bonuses are usually based on productivity but can also be tied to patient satisfaction, clinical processes, and other factors.

The number of family physicians who achieved more than three quarters of their potential annual bonus rose to 61% this year, up from 55%.

17 Hours a Week on Administrative Tasks

The survey also ranked specialties by the amount of time physicians spent on paperwork and administrative tasks, including participation in professional organizations and clinical reading.

Family physicians fell squarely in the middle, with 17 hours per week spent on such tasks. Infectious disease physicians spent the most time, at 24.2 hours a week, and anesthesiologists spent the least, at 10.1.

Work hours declined for many physicians during the pandemic, and some were furloughed.

But, like most physicians, family physicians are once more working normal hours. They average 49 hours per week, which is slightly more than before the pandemic.

Specialists whose weekly hours are above normal are infectious disease physicians, intensivists, and public health and preventive medicine physicians; all are working 6 to 7 hours a week more than usual, according to the survey responses.

Responses also turned up some uncertainty on the future makeup of patient panels.

Most family physicians (69%) said they would continue to take new and current Medicare/Medicaid patients.

However, close to one third of family physicians said they would stop treating at least some patients they already have and will not take new ones or haven't decided yet.

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