Infectious disease physicians play important healthcare role, but compensation is low

Physicians who specialize in infectious diseases play an important role in healthcare, but their compensation doesn’t match their value, according to a new report.

While they help manage disease outbreaks and antibiotic resistance, these physicians’ salaries rank toward the bottom when compared to those of other physicians, a survey (PDF) by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) found.

Infectious disease (ID) specialists earn an average of $215,000 a year, according to a 2017 compensation survey of 2,504 IDSA members. That’s less than half of what some specialists earn, according to other surveys. For instance, a salary survey released last week found that plastic surgeons, who are the highest-paid specialty, average $501,000 per year, while orthopedists average $497,000.

While their pay is among the lowest compared to other specialists, these physicians provide expertise in a wide variety of areas of healthcare, from infection control and disease prevention to helping contain outbreaks and public health. ID specialists are leaders in managing diseases such as pneumonia, diarrheal disease and tuberculosis, which are among the top killers worldwide. They also manage diseases from HIV to hepatitis C, as well as helping manage antimicrobial resistance, headline-making outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika and promoting vaccines.

The poor pay, however, has leaders at the IDSA, a professional society representing more than 11,000 physicians and scientists who specialize in infectious diseases, worried that new physicians are not entering the specialty. Medical students are increasingly opting to specialize in other areas due to the financial challenges of ID work, the report said.

“ID specialists provide essential care and expertise to patients and behind the scenes and it’s important to understand the significant value they bring to healthcare as well as how they are compensated based on those roles,” Christopher D. Busky, CEO of the IDSA, said in an announcement. “Unfortunately, as ID specialists retire, new physicians are not coming into the field at the same rate because of the financial challenges, particularly in areas such as public health. Compensation needs to adequately reflect ID specialists’ value to ensure safe and effective care for patients.”

The IDSA has undertaken several initiatives to counteract that trend to help ensure there are enough ID experts to take on the next pandemic. Efforts include providing mentorship and scholarship opportunities, ongoing advocacy aimed at federal officials and third-party payers to improve compensation and supporting research that demonstrates the value of ID expertise.

Studies have shown that the work of ID specialists is associated not only with reduced costs, but also reduced mortality. For example, one review of inpatient Medicare claims data showed that patients seen by ID consultants had lower mortality rates and were less likely to be readmitted when compared to matched controls.