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Seriously? Doctors say they're underpaid
May 1st, 2012
10:55 AM ET

Seriously? Doctors say they're underpaid

Anthony Youn, M.D., is a plastic surgeon in metro Detroit. He is the author of “In Stitches,” a humorous memoir about growing up Asian American and becoming a doctor.

Full disclosure: I have no complaints about how much I make.

But many other physicians are not as satisfied - a recent study by Medscape revealed that 49% of doctors believe they're not fairly compensated. Of primary care physicians, this percentage increases to 54%.

It’s no myth that doctors are some of the highest paid professionals in the country. So why are they complaining?

It’s likely because of situations like Dr. Peterson’s.

Dr. Peterson is a plastic surgeon whom I worked with during my residency. A kind, competent physician, his new, fledgling practice consisted of reconstructive surgery. He treated women with breast cancer, paraplegics with pressure sores, and burn patients.

I was the on-call plastic surgery resident one night when a 42-year-old man - let’s call him Dave - was brought into the hospital at 3 a.m. He had fallen off a roof while intoxicated. Dave broke several bones in his face and shattered his lower leg.

I stumbled out of bed and met Dr. Peterson in the ER, where we spent the next three hours assessing Dave’s injuries and repairing his lacerations. Five days later Dr. Peterson and I performed an eight-hour operation, reconstructing his broken facial bones and performing a muscle transfer to help heal his fractured legs. For the next two months, we visited Dave in the hospital each and every day, changing his bandages and making sure he healed properly.

Not once did Dave thank Dr. Peterson for his care.

Instead, Dave took more than $3,000 from him.

Close scrutiny

Quite possibly no other occupation in the country receives such attention regarding the income its members receive. And that’s not a new trend - more than 70% of respondents of a survey published in the 1985 American Journal of Public Health believed doctors were overpaid.

The Medscape survey found the average physician compensation now ranges from a high of $315,000 for orthopedic surgeons to a low of $156,000 for pediatricians. Sounds pretty good right?

Consider that physicians must complete at least four years of college, four years of medical school, and between three to eight years of residency training prior to becoming a real, practicing doctor. Many physicians don’t start earning “doctor-level” salaries until they are well into their 30s.

A 2009 survey by U.S. News found the typical medical student graduated with $141,132 in debt. The graduates of some schools averaged more than $200,000 in loans.
So how do doctors’ salaries compare with other well-paying professions?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average computer and information system manager earns $125,660 per year. The average lawyer makes $130,490 per year. Orthodontists take home $204,670. The New York Times recently reported the average base pay for managing directors at Morgan Stanley is $400,000. At Goldman Sachs, it’s $600,000. The average salary of an NFL player is $1.9 million. NBA players average $5.15 million per year.

Just for putting a ball in a hoop.

When you consider these numbers, the thought of pediatricians making $156,000 a year doesn’t seem unreasonable. They often see 50 patients per day, answer our calls at all hours, and keep our kids healthy.

What about critical care physicians? They average $240,000 a year, but are responsible for keeping the sickest of us alive. One-quarter of critical care physicians spend more than 65 hours per week with their patients, not including time doing paperwork.

Unlike most other professions, there is a ceiling to what most doctors can earn. Physician compensation is tightly controlled by the government and insurance companies. Medicine is also the only profession where its members are required to sometimes work for free.

No return on investment

Which brings us back to Dave.

Three months later, I accompanied Dr. Peterson in his clinic to see Dave for a follow-up appointment. Dr. Peterson seemed a bit distracted. At the end of the visit I found out why.

“I’m glad you’re doing so well, Dave,” said Dr. Peterson.

“Yeah, I’m really happy with how things have turned out,” he replied.

“So Dave, this is a little awkward for me, but I need to ask you something. Two weeks ago your insurance company sent you a check for $3,200 to forward to me for all my surgical and office fees.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Well, um,” Dr. Peterson stuttered. “We never received it from you.”

“No, you didn’t. I cashed it and spent it.”

“Dave, why would you do that?”

“I figured you’re a rich doctor. I need the money more than you.”

What do you think? Are doctors being underpaid? Tell us in the comments below.


soundoff (2,193 Responses)
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  8. Mak

    It is sort of an understatement to say we are underpaid. In reality when you break down the cost of being a doctor, some of us, depends on the region you live in, live at the poverty level. For example, in Los Angeles, 65K per year income, puts you at poverty level, due to high cost of living. I personally "Take home" 80K per year. My practice grosses about 300k, but after paying for my staff, my rent, Mal practice, Worker's comp, Liability, STUDENT LOANS (179K) CMEs, Board Certification, License, DEA number....I am left with at best 80k. I live in a modest home in a modest neighborhood, drive a modest car and send my kids to public school. Yet there isn't a day when a Pt walks into my office asking me for something for free. Or as stated above, 85% of my patients do not pay their balances. They simply think I am well off and really do not deserve more than what the insurance have paid. Even after sending them to collections, I lose 35%. It is sad to be looked at as "greedy" doctor when I know how I struggle. I work 12-13 hours per day 6 days a week. I often take calls on Sunday for hospital consults, and to make 80k per year net, it is very bothersome. However, this mess we created is our own fault. If we do not unite as doctors and take back what is ours, then it is going to get worse. I love medicine, I love my pts but really feel tired and underappreciated.

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  9. Adamantine

    There are times when hospitals bill private patients substantially more than the negotiated rates through insurance. That should be stopped. It needs to be transparent and equitable, but that's another story. If my doctor takes care of me like this doctor did for his patient he deserves compensation, not to be stiffed. I don't want my surgeon, or gp or any specialist so worried about payment from me/insurance that he can't focus on my problem. He deserves lots of money in my opinion. What price would I put on reconstructing my face??? And what kind of insurance sends the money to the patient? In California money ALWAYS goes directly to the doctor, plus there are upfront co-pays for at least some of it. That alone is reason for the doctor not to accept that insurance.

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