Behind the numbers: Salary survey dishes up hot physician issues

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Deb Beaulieu

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Despite its narrow title, Medscape's Physician Compensation Report 2012 reveals much more than how much doctors are earning. In fact, the online survey of 24,216 physicians across 25 specialties provides up-to-date data on a number of hot issues discussed recently on FiercePracticeManagement.

For example, we've published numerous articles and commentaries during the past few months about physicians' responsibility to discuss the cost of care with patients.

And while we reported in 2010 that medical schools were beginning to incorporate cost awareness into future doctors' curriculum, it's been unclear to what extent current practicing physicians have approached this changing mindset. According to Medscape's survey conducted in February 2012, 38 percent of the physicians surveyed said they regularly discuss cost of care with patients. If the patient raises the subject, that figure rises to 46 percent. However, 16 percent of respondents reported that they never discuss treatment expenses with patients, either because they don't know how much services cost or they don't think it's appropriate to do so.

As the attention to healthcare pricing transparency intensifies, I'll be curious to watch how these numbers and attitudes change in the years to come.

Another very intriguing statistic from the report is that 67 percent of physicians said that, despite health reform's push to reduce "unnecessary care," they would not reduce the number of tests, procedures and treatments they perform in accordance with newer guidelines. However, another 27 percent said that they were behind the guidelines and thus planned to change their ways.

Note that these responses were collected more than a month before the ABIM Foundation and the American College of Physicians separately (though both in partnership with Consumer Reports) launched initiatives encouraging physicians to favor "high-value" care over many costly interventions that some experts say are too often performed needlessly.

It will be interesting to see whether Medscape's results are a predictor of how successful this push will be or if the specialty groups' recommendations will lead doctors to change their tune.

Less surprising, given the stories we've shared recently about physicians' financial struggles, is that very few physicians today say they "feel rich." As individuals inside the industry understand all too well, physicians' debts and expenses were generally so high that 89 percent overall said they did not feel rich--the part of the survey that grabbed headlines through mainstream media. While physicians may slow to recognize patients' financial burdens, the public is even further behind in understanding those of their doctors.

The survey covered several other trends in medical practice, such as how much time physicians spend with patients and which specialists said they would choose different career paths if they were to do it again. And of course, there's the data on how much physicians across 25 specialty areas earned in 2011. For more on these dollar amounts and trends, see the story in this issue of FiercePracticeManagement. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)

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