While COVID-19 made 2020 a difficult year for doctors, Medscape’s 2021 physician salary report found that physician income in 2020 was similar to numbers reported for 2019. However, 92% of those who experienced a drop in income attributed it to COVID-19-related factors, including fewer hours and fewer patients. The report also looked at the highest-paid physician specialties, pay differences between self-employed and employed physicians, and which states paid physicians the most.
The highest-paid physician specialties
Specialists in plastic surgery earned the highest physician salary in 2020 — an average of $526,000. Orthopedics/orthopedic surgery is the next-highest specialty ($511,000 annually), followed by cardiology at $459,000 annually. The top five highest-earning specialties remained the same as in 2019 except for urology, which now sits at number four — earning an average of $427,000 annually.
Plastic surgeons’ salaries increased by 10% in 2020, though some plastic surgeons did not have as much work when elective surgeries stopped during the pandemic. Oncologists saw a 7% salary increase, and rheumatologists and cardiologists enjoyed a 5% salary increase.
When asked whether they felt they were fairly compensated, 79% (compared to 67% in 2019) of oncologists thought this was true, along with 69% of psychiatrists, 68% of plastic surgeons, and 67% of dermatologists. On the other end of the scale, 44% of those who specialize in infectious disease felt they were fairly compensated, and just half of diabetes and endocrinology specialists felt this way.
Earnings for self-employed vs. employed physicians
Self-employed physicians earned an average annual salary of $352,000 in 2020, compared to a $300,000 average annual salary for employed physicians. Though the number of self-employed doctors has declined over the past few years, Medscape’s medical resident survey found that 21% of residents anticipated owning their own practice or becoming a partner. It’s important to note that locum tenens physicians are included among self-employed physicians as well.
Pay disparity between male and female doctors
The survey found the pay disparity between male and female physicians continues. Men who worked as primary care physicians earned about 27% more than women ($269,000 versus $211,000 annually).
The disparity between male and female specialists is even greater: Male specialists earned 33% more than female specialists in 2020 ($376,000 for men and $283,000 for women). Women in the workforce were also hit hardest by COVID-19’s economic effects.
However, the report shows that fewer women work in the highest-paying specialties. Just 9% of women surveyed work in orthopedics and orthopedic surgery, and 14% work in cardiology. In plastic surgery, the highest-paid specialty, women make up 20% of the workforce.
The highest paying states for physicians
It may come as a surprise that Alabama pays the highest physician salary overall — an annual average of $348,000. Kentucky ($340,000), Oklahoma ($338,000), Indiana ($337,000), and Missouri ($332,000) round out the top five highest-paying states.
COVID-19’s impact on physician compensation
Pandemic salaries were not consistent for all doctors, however. Even though 45% of physicians surveyed said they did not face financial or practice-related problems in 2020 due to COVID-19, 13% experienced no income for a period (an average of three months), and more than one-fifth saw a reduction in hours.
Physicians find work rewarding despite challenges
Twenty-three percent of physicians surveyed said the most challenging part of their job was dealing with the many rules and regulations. Physicians also spent an average of 15.6 hours per week on paperwork, EHR documentation, administrative duties, reading clinical articles, and participating in professional organizations. COVID-19 also negatively affected many physicians, with about 64% saying the pandemic made their burnout worse.
Despite the challenges, many physicians continue to find their work fulfilling. About 26% of those surveyed said the most rewarding part of their job was helping others and making the world a better place, another 26% cited gratitude from and relationships with patients, and 24% most valued finding answers and diagnoses.
Although COVID-19 had an impact on physicians and other healthcare providers during 2020, most doctors have recovered their salaries — and some even reported earning a higher wage during the pandemic. Overall, Medscape’s physician salary report suggests that healthcare is on the road to recovery in 2021.
Chart images from Medscape.com