Female doctors earn an estimated $2M less than their male counterparts over a 40-year career: study

Wages for female physicians amount to an estimated $2 million less than compensation for their male counterparts over the course of a simulated 40-year career, a new study finds.

Male doctors took home an average adjusted gross income of $8,307,327 compared with $6,263,446 for female physicians—a difference of $2,043,881, or 24.6%, according to the study published in the December issue of Health Affairs.

“Women physicians don’t earn as much as male physicians across the whole trajectory of their career,” lead author Christopher M. Whaley, Ph.D., a healthcare policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., told Fierce Healthcare. The pay differences, he said, add up to “a pretty sizeable number.”

Gender income gaps were most pronounced for surgical specialists ($2.5 million), followed by nonsurgical specialists ($1.6 million) and primary care physicians ($900,000).

These figures resulted after researchers adjusted for factors that may otherwise explain observed differences in income, such as hours worked, clinical revenue, practice type and specialty.

RELATED: Industry Voices—The pay gap for male and female doctors is ridiculous. Here's what can be done about it

“The findings are concerning for a few reasons,” senior author Anupam B. Jena, M.D., Ph.D., an economist and the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School, told Fierce Healthcare. “Of course, they raise natural questions about equity in pay, meaning equal pay for equal work. But they also raise questions for me about the signals we send to people investing huge amounts of time and effort, early in their lives, into careers like medicine.”

Researchers used earnings data from 80,342 full-time U.S. physicians in a variety of work environments—including academic medical centers and community settings and across specialties between 2014 and 2019—to estimate career differences in income between men and women. They revealed that those differences “increased most rapidly during the initial years of practice” but did not rebound.

Large gaps in income persist despite the fact that about half of all U.S. medical school graduates are women. In addition, the authors mentioned that women hold nearly 40% of U.S. medical school faculty appointments.

The authors cited previous research based on income data from surveys or administrative records and conducted in various settings, but most often in academic environments. That research found that female physicians earn significantly less than their male counterparts even after accounting for gender differences in specialty, hours worked, years of experience, age, marital status, family structure and research and clinical productivity.

However, the authors pointed out that prior studies did not explore cumulative career differences in income between male and female physicians.

“No one, at least to my knowledge, has taken a step back and said, ‘Across a whole career, how do all of the disparities add up?’ And that’s what we wanted to do in this study,” Whaley noted.

RELATED: Salary, representation gaps persist for women teaching internal medicine

To perform their analyses, the authors obtained data from Doximity, an online professional network for physicians that includes information about more than 70% of U.S. doctors. Physicians who completed Doximity’s compensation survey provided detailed information on total annual income, practice type (for example, hospital or group practice) and average hours worked per week.

Physicians’ income was reported in categories with increments of $5,000 between $40,000 and $250,000 and increments of $25,000 between $250,000 and $1 million.The earnings were linked to data on physician characteristics, using each physician’s National Provider Identifier, or NPI. Analyses were limited to physicians who reported practicing full-time.

The authors speculated that their results actually may “underestimate the actual magnitude of the gender income gap,” if women were more likely to leave active medical practice, as indicated by other studies.

“Gender pay gaps like this, which are large when viewed cumulatively over a lifetime, send the wrong market signal,” Jena said. “We want to be encouraging, not discouraging, the best women and men to enter medicine.”