Physicians React: Compensation Isn't Worth the Hassles. What's the Solution?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

July 05, 2022

How satisfied are physicians that they are fairly compensated for their dedication, skills, and time? That's a subject that seems to steer many physicians to heated emotions and to a variety of issues with today's medical field — not all of which directly affect their pay.

Medscape's Physician Compensation Report 2022: Incomes Gain, Pay Gaps Remain generally shows encouraging trends. Physician income rose from a year earlier, when it stagnated as COVID-19 restrictions led patients to stay home and medical practices to cut hours or close. And for the first time in Medscape's 11 years of reporting on physician compensation, average income rose for every medical specialty surveyed.

Heartening findings, right? Yet the tone of comments to the report was anything but peppy. Many commenters were highly distressed or even angry about their compensation. One physician even complained his plumber earns more than he.

A family physician lamented he has "made less in the past 3 years, with more hassles and work" and he "can't wait to retire next year." Meanwhile, he complained, the US health system is "the costliest, yet wasteful; with worse outcomes; reactive, not preventative; and has the costliest drugs and social issues."

Do NPs and PAs Encroach on Your Income?

The conversation about fair compensation launched some commenters into a discussion about competition from nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs). Some physicians expressed wariness at best, and anger at worst, about NPs and PAs evolving beyond traditional doctor support roles into certain direct patient support.

One fourth of respondents in the Medscape compensation report said their income was negatively affected by competition from NPs, PAs, and other nonphysician providers. For example, with states like Arkansas expanding independent practice for certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), one commenter complained, "we are no longer needed."

Added another physician, "Primary care, especially internal medicine, is just going away for doctors. We wasted, by all accounts, 4 full years of our working lives because NPs are 'just as good.'"

Greater independence for NPs and PAs strengthens the hands of health insurers and "will end up hastening the demise of primary care as we have known it," another reader predicted. Other physicians' takes: "For the institution, it's much cheaper to hire NPs than to hire doctors." "Overall physician negotiating power will decrease in the future."

Medicare Reimbursement Rates Grate

Although 7 in 10 respondents in the compensation report said they would continue to accept new Medicare or Medicaid patients, comments reveal resentment about the practical need to work with Medicare and its resentment rates.

"An open question to Medicare: Are you doing the dumbest thing possible by paying low wages and giving huge administrative burdens for internal medicine on purpose?" one physician wrote. "Or are you really that short-sighted?"

Another reader cited an analysis from the American College of Surgeons of Medicare's 1998 surgical CPT codes. If Medicare had left those codes alone beyond annual inflation adjustments, the study found, reimbursement rates by 2019 would be half of what they became.

Another way of looking at the code reimbursement increases is a 50% pay cut over 20 years for doctors and medical practices, that reader insisted. "The rising cost of employee wages, particularly of the last two-and-a-half years of COVID-19, combined with the effective pay cuts over the last 20 years, equals time to quit!"

Another commenter concurred. "In the 1990s, most full-time docs were making almost double what you see [in the report], and everything cost almost half of what it does now. So, MD purchasing power is between half and one quarter of what it was in the early 1990s."

Are Self-pay Models Better?

Do physicians have a better chance at consistently fair income under a self-pay practice that avoids dealing with insurance companies?

One commenter hypothesized that psychiatrists once trailed internists in income but today earn more because many "quit working for insurance and went to a cash business 15 years ago." Many family physicians did something similar by switching to a direct primary care model, he said.

This physician said he has done the same "with great results" for patients as well: shorter office visits, faster booking of appointments, no deductibles owed. Best of all, "I love practicing medicine again, and my patients love the great healthcare they receive."

Another commenter agreed. "Two words: cash practice." But another objected, "I guess only the very rich can afford to cover your business costs."

Regardless of the payment model, another physician argued for private practice over employed positions. "Save on the bureaucratic expenses. Go back to private practice and get rid of electronic records."

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