Demand continues to push up physician salaries, yet gender and racial pay disparities persist

The growing demand for doctors continues to push up salaries for both primary care and specialty physicians in the U.S.

Doctors saw a modest increase in earnings from 2017 to 2018, with the overall physician salary at $299,000, up from $294,000, according to Medscape’s physician compensation report for 2018.

The average salary for primary care physicians is $223,000, up from $217,000 in 2017. Similarly, salaries for specialists also climbed to $329,000 this year, up from $316,000 last year. The report was based on a survey of 20,000 U.S. physicians across 29 specialties.

The bad news? The survey found that salary disparities continue, with women physicians earning less than their male colleagues and a gap in pay persisting for African-American doctors.

The biggest jump in pay was a 16% increase reported for psychiatrists, which was attributed to the country’s opioid crisis and a growing need for mental health services. As Fierce Healthcare has reported, a shortage of psychiatrists and mental health services has created a crisis in the U.S. that sends many patients to the emergency room as a last resort.

“We’re seeing the impact of supply and demand on physicians’ salaries in this year’s report,” Leslie Kane, Medscape’s senior director for the business of medicine, said in an announcement. “The growing need for more doctors as the population ages is pushing salaries higher. At the same time, the amount of paperwork and bureaucratic demands escalate, leaving doctors with less time to see patients. We also see the influence of the opioid epidemic and the demand for psychiatrists to treat aging patients leading to increased salaries.”

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Here are some of the highlights from the survey:

Gender gap: Despite the growing movement for pay equity, the survey found women primary care physicians earn an average of 18% less than males and women in specialties earn 36% less than men. Among primary care doctors, men earn an average of $239,000 per year, while women earn $203,000. In fact, those gaps got bigger since last year. Male specialists earn $358,000, while women earn $263,000.

Racial/ethnic gaps: African-American physicians earn an average of $50,000 less than white physicians—with average salaries at $308,000 for white doctors and $258,000 for Black doctors. But the problem is even worse for Black women, who make nearly $100,000 less than male African-American physicians. Asian-American physicians earn an average $293,000 per year and Hispanic/Latino physicians earn an average $278,000. 

Highest paid specialties: Plastic surgeons were the highest-paid specialty, averaging $501,000. That overtakes orthopedists, who average $497,000. It's the first time since the survey has been conducted that orthopedists have not topped the list.

Lowest-paid doctors: Pediatricians and family practice physicians report the lowest compensation, averaging $212,000 and $219,000, respectively.

Geography: Less-populated states that can have trouble recruiting physicians offer more lucrative pay. Physicians in the Northeast earned the lowest salaries and those in the North Central states earned the highest wages.

Most happy with career choice: Despite the increasing burden of administrative tasks, 77% of physicians are happy with their chosen profession. The amount of time physicians spend on paperwork and administrative tasks, however, continues to increase, with 71% of doctors spending more than 10 hours per week on paperwork, an increase of 13 percentage points in one year.