Physician Gender Pay Gap Isn't News; Health Inequity Is Rampant

Jennifer Frank, MD


December 13, 2021

A recent study examined projected career earnings between the genders in a largely community-based physician population, finding a difference of about $2 million in career earnings. That a gender pay gap exists in medicine is not news — but the manner in which this study was done, the investigators' ability to control for a number of confounding variables, and the size of the study group (over 80,000) are newsworthy.

Some of the key findings include that gender pay gaps start with your first job and you never close the gap, even as you gain experience and efficiency. Also, the more highly remunerated your specialty, the larger the gap. The gender pay gap joins a growing list of inequities within healthcare. Although physician compensation is not the most important, given that nearly all physicians are well-paid and we have much more significant inequities that lead to direct patient harm, the reasons for this discrepancy warrant further consideration.

When I was first being educated about social inequity as part of work in social determinants of health, I made the error of using "inequality" and "inequity" interchangeably. The subtle yet important difference between the two terms was quickly described to me. Inequality is a gastroenterologist getting paid more money to do a colonoscopy than a family physician. Inequity is a female gastroenterologist getting paid less than a male gastroenterologist. Global Health Europe boldly identifies that "inequity is the result of failure." In looking at the inequity inherent in the gender pay gap, I consider what failed and why.

I'm currently making a major career change, leaving an executive leadership position to return to full-time clinical practice. There is a significant pay decrease that will accompany this change because I am in a primary care specialty. Beyond that, I am considering two employment contracts from different systems to do a similar clinical role.

One of the questions my husband asked was which will pay more over the long run. This is difficult to discern because the compensation formula each health system uses is different, even though they are based on standard national benchmarking data. It is possible that women, in general, are like I am and look for factors other than compensation to make a job decision — assuming, like I do, that it will be close enough to not matter or is generally fair. In fact, while compensation is most certainly a consideration for me, once I determined that it was likely to be in the same ballpark, I stopped comparing. Even as the sole breadwinner in our family, I take this (probably faulty) approach.

It's Time to Reconsider How We Pay Physicians

Women may be more likely to gloss over compensation details that men evaluate and negotiate carefully. To change this, women must first take responsibility for being an active, informed, and engaged part of compensation negotiations. In addition, employers who value gender pay equity must negotiate in good faith, keeping in mind the well-described vulnerabilities in discussions about pay. Finally, male and female mentors and leaders should actively coach female physicians on how to approach these conversations with confidence and skill.

In primary care, female physicians spend, on average, about 15% more time with their patients during a visit. Despite spending as much time in clinic seeing patients per week, they see fewer patients, thereby generating less revenue. For compensation plans that are based on productivity, the extra time spent costs money. In this case, it costs the female physicians lost compensation.

The way in which women are more likely to practice medicine, which includes the amount of time they spend with patients, may affect clinical outcomes without directly increasing productivity. A 2017 study demonstrated that elderly patients had lower rates of mortality and readmission when cared for by a female rather than a male physician. These findings require health systems to critically evaluate what compensation plans value and to promote an appropriate balance between quality of care, quantity of care, and style of care.

Although I've seen gender pay inequity as blatant as two different salaries for physicians doing the same work — one male and one female — I think this is uncommon. Like many forms of inequity, the outputs are often related to a failed system rather than solely a series of individual failures. Making compensation formulas gender-blind is an important step — but it is only the first step, not the last. Recognizing that the structure of a compensation formula may be biased toward a style of medical practice more likely to be espoused by one gender is necessary as well.

The data, including the findings of this recent study, clearly identify the gender pay gap that exists in medicine, as it does in many other fields, and that it is not explainable solely by differences in specialties, work hours, family status, or title.

To address the inequity, it is imperative that women engage with employers and leaders to both understand and develop skills around effective and appropriate compensation negotiation. Recognizing that compensation plans, especially those built on productivity models, may fail to place adequate value on gender-specific practice styles.

Jennifer Frank is a family physician, physician leader, wife, and mother in Northeast Wisconsin.


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