The financial struggles created by the pandemic have eased somewhat, but physicians are still facing an array of challenges, including increased workloads and longer hours. All in all, however, things seem to be looking up.
More than 13,000 physicians in more than 29 specialties shared information about their incomes and other aspects of their careers in a survey conducted by Medscape. The responses showed a trend back to something like normal after the initial blow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the profession began to recover from the pandemic, cardiologists reported that their incomes increased in 2021, reaching an average of $490,000 for the year, up from $459,000 the previous year. This was in keeping with physicians in other specialties. “Compensation for most physicians is trending back up, as demands for physicians accelerates,” said James Taylor, group president and chief operating officer of AMN Healthcare’s Physician & Leadership Solutions Division. “The market for physicians has done a complete 180 over just 7 or 8 months.” And though inflation is on everyone’s mind these days, rising salaries have helped physicians keep up with rising prices.
Despite the increase in income (and the accompanying increased workload), nearly 30% of cardiologists have taken on extra work, most of that being medical work, but a few did report unrelated side hustles. This may be due not to a shortfall in income, but rather to a desire to pad the coffers for the future. Lauren Podnos, a financial planner with Wealth Care, a firm that specializes in working with physicians and other health care professionals, points out that many physicians like to build wealth as quickly as possible as a hedge against possible burnout later on. “With physicians,” she said, “we work to get to the point where they have the freedom to do whatever they want – cut back and work part-time or transition into another career – so if they do burn out, they have other options.”
Though physician pay rose overall, not all cardiologists enjoyed a boost in income. However, those who did lose ground did not always lay the blame on COVID-19: General pay cuts were mentioned, for example. For physicians overall, a gender pay gap still remains, with men averaging $373,000 per year, in contrast to women who make $282,000. With more women moving into higher-paying specialties, the gap has narrowed somewhat in recent years, and industry leaders are making efforts to accelerate that trend. “A great many of the specialty organizations have efforts underway not just to increase the number of women in specialties but also to address gender pay gaps in evaluations during residency and fellowship,” said Ron Holder, chief operating officer of the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA).
Incentive bonuses helped bump up income as well. Overall, 57% of physicians receive some kind of incentive bonus; the average for cardiologists was $85,000 last year, up from $71,000 the prior year. While such bonuses can certainly help the bottom line, they’re not always an unmitigated good. A 2021 study found that incentive programs can cause people to prioritize time spent at work and with work colleagues at the expense of family and personal relationships, a potentially troubling finding with so many physicians struggling with depression and burnout. “There’s been a lot of previous evidence showing that the more time we spend with our loved ones the happier we are,” said Julia Hur, PhD, assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and lead author of the study. “The core argument of this study is about attention, and performance incentives create an attentional fixation on money,” she said, “causing people to spend more time with work colleagues and people who are helpful to their careers. And that takes away from time for family and friends.”