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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 (1,860 Responses)
  1. Dr. G

    I am a current cardiology fellow....I'm 33 years old I won't be done with training until I'm 35 years old at which point I will have spent 15 years after graduating high school becoming an interventional cardiologist. This is 4 years undergrad , 4 years med school and 7 years resident and fellow training. With thanks to compounding interest I will have $450k in loans to look forward to when I actually start earning "doctors pay." I want anyone to dare tell me that I make too much for being called in at any random hour to come to the hospital to save a life from a heart attack, while exposing myself to the dangers of radiation, blood born illness and the possibility of being sued if something goes wrong and oh did I mention someone's life hangs in the balance?! All to make about $1000-1500...really!!! I've paid more for a root canal. Did I forget to mention that my typical work week is about 70-80 hrs with 4 days off the entire month! No where else in the world do dr work more, pay more for their education and are used more frequently than here in the US. If this trend continues you will have one of 2 scenarios less qualified people becoming drs or there will be such a short supply that it will take 6 months to see a dr. This keeps up good luck keeping Drs like me willing to put their and their families lives on hold to save yours.

    May 3, 2014 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Heath IT

      I am not sure where you got your figure but a cardiologist on average will be paid about $350k for the current fiscal year. Additionally why we all respect the opportunity cost that you must pay in order to provide us with quality health care in this country you must also understand that High education costs an low salaries are something that effects most high level professions these days. For example many MBA programs cost about $55,000 for the 2013-2014 year not room, board, books and other miscellaneous costs are not included in these figures which would only be added to any legacy debt that you are carrying from undergrad. Additionally the average starting salary outside of the nations top 10 B-schools hovers right around 85K giver or take a few grand. Also like you upon graduation you will be expected to and do work 70-80 hour weeks, there have been numerous time where I myself have worked 100 weeks to launch a new IT system at various hospitals around the country.

      Just saying ts hard on everyone right now, but at the least assuming you can adapt to a changing healthcare environment and increased technological utilization you are not overly vulnerable to the same market forces that many of the rest of us are.

      November 19, 2014 at 14:25 | Report abuse |
  2. David Anderson

    My question concerning Doctor's pay: When doctors make comments such as the comments of this doctor, how do doctors justify asking for more money? Please follow the link to this court case to see what I am talking about:

    http://www.courthousenews.com/2014/04/22/67225.htm

    It is things like this that turns the general public's stomach................

    May 8, 2014 at 22:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dr B

      In response to the article link you posted:
      For taking on that one patient under their care that doctor put over $1million dollars on the line. They are not paid enough to deal with this constant excess of liability. Although they have expensive malpractice their malpractice will increase anytime anything is reported against them. There are also limits to malpractice and if another suit were filed in the same year the doctor may have his & his families personal assets taken away as well. (Ive been made fun of many time & did not get any money much less 1mill). (I get made fun of, yelled at, attacked, belittled and exposed to pathogens, by patients DAILY and receive no compensation from them in exchange whatsoever. All I get to do is “fire”, or refuse, them as patients from that point on) Many doctors are turning away or “firing” "high risk" patients whom feel may potentially sue them. You can often anticipate difficult patients and guess what you are not worth our time. If you see me ill refer you to a “specialist” or not follow up with you bc you’re not worth my pay.
      Yes, the discussions had by the doctors in this article were offensively inappropriate. Syphillis is a contagion which should be discussed but not mocked. The doctors did not give consent to be recorded. The patient however did sign a waiver to have his medical issues and prescription meds discussed between all staff present. All other jokes made were not professional or humane by any means. This is also a result of less educated/respectful people becoming doctors because the compensation is not sufficient for others to want to strive for it. if you came and saw me in my practice expressing the views you have you wouldn’t receive as much attention as others. Im not paid to be your Mr nice guy.

      August 28, 2014 at 15:39 | Report abuse |
  3. Brit

    Doctors have it no worse than anyone else! Oh, doctors only make minimum wage straight out of school? So do most entry level workers... Honestly, in what other profession can you spend 5 minutes with your client and charge $150?

    June 20, 2014 at 18:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Really?

      um...how much of the $120 does the doctor actually get back? He/She is LUCKY to get a $60 reimbursement from the insurance company, now out of the $60, he/she has to pay the staff, rent, medical supplies, etc. Lucky if they get $15 by the end of the fight? Why the initial $120 bill? Because if doctor's charged $60 the insurance company would THINK about sending $30. Gotta look at the big picture, dude. Open up those horizons, it might do you some good.

      June 26, 2014 at 23:31 | Report abuse |
    • Mikey

      Doctors do not get paid $120 for 5 minutes. Haven't you ever watched Dr. House? Doctors think deeply about their patients, chart, write letters, fill out forms, return phone calls, get awakened in the middle of the night. Do you think they get paid for all of that? No–it's bundled into the $120 fee, of which they probably get about $60 for. Do you also have a problem paying your plumber or electrician $90 to come to your house just to change a washer or lightbulb? How about paying $50 for gas for your car while the oil execs get paid millions? The $120 is for years of training, education, nights studying, missed Christmas and Thanksgivings, so that doctor can make a decision in 5 minutes being confident that the diagnosis is correct.

      July 31, 2014 at 18:15 | Report abuse |
  4. jeromy

    Not even slightly, massively underpaid. They have no life outside if work either. What's the point of that paycheck if they have no time or family to spend it with??

    July 16, 2014 at 10:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. raddoc

    This type of patient is why we need a single payer system. The doctor would have definitely gotten paid (probably more than what was most likely an out of network payment by the insurer since it went directly to the patient), and it wouldn't have been left up to this type of degenerate to forward the insurance payment. It would also solve the cost problem, by having everyone pay into the system, allowing the fortunate healthy to subsidize the unfortunate sick (how any insurance system should work). We have the most expensive system in the world by far, and yet our system is ranked dead last in the developed world and 37th worldwide (just above Slovenia). It's time for doctors and politicians to understand the big picture here, and effect the type of changes that would benefit the society at large. Right now, the system benefits the insurers, pharma companies, and in some cases health care providers (e.g. the hospitals who get more than twice what an outpatient center gets for the same services) who can successfully game the system and funnel profits their way. Yes, the vast majority of doctors are very underpaid for the amount of hours, responsibility, technical skill, and stress their jobs exact, but that is not the whole story.

    August 9, 2014 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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