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Doctor salaries under fire after Washington Post report

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Data analysis by the paper showed an average physician salary of $350,000

A Washington Post data analysis that it published last week has created quite a stir. The analysis looked at more than 10 million tax records from 965,000 physicians over 13 years through 2020 and came to the conclusion that the average physician salary is $350,000.

Doctor salaries: ©Pixel Robot - stock.adobe.com

Doctor salaries: ©Pixel Robot - stock.adobe.com

But the author notes that the number accounts for ALL streams of income, meaning that figure would include side hustles and investment proceeds.

The report notes that between the ages of 40-55, the average physician made $405,000 in 2017, with 94% from wages. The top 10% of docs average $1.3 million, with the top 1% making $4 million, but 85% of that, the report states, came from business income or capital gains.

According to the 2023 Medical Economics Physicians Report, for comparison, the average 2022 salary for a family physicians was $245,000, while the Post puts the figure at $230,000. Internal medicine is $253,000, compared to the Post’s $278,400. Medical Economics’ survey is based on data provided anonymously by physicians, while the Post’s relies on tax records.

The salary report by the Post generated some pushback. In the second paragraph of the story, the author notes that when the data was first reported, a small number of doctors responded with anger and in some cases, insults, via social media. The story also mainly quotes economists speculating as to why doctors might be upset about the data, instead of actually talking to doctors. In fact, the only doctor quoted is the head of Association of American Medical Colleges’ Research and Action Institute.

The article generated more than 6,000 comments – an average Post story might generate a few hundred while something controversial might yield several thousand. The comments range from the “doctors are greedy” category to blaming insurance companies and the corporatization of medicine. The data experts in the crowd point out using “median” instead of average income would have presented a much better picture.

Part of the reason doctors might be upset about the article is that the Post author is completely dismissive of the debt burden doctors must bear. The article states: “…medical education also leads to astonishingly high student debt — an average of $246,000 as of 2017. But that debt almost vanishes against a physician’s still more-than-robust expected $10 million in lifetime income.”

According to Medical Economics data, in 2022, physicians had an average of $128,000 in debt and those with no debts took 40 years to pay it off – hardly the easy debt picture painted by the Post.

The article does touch upon the doctor shortage, but also partly lays blame on the Association of American Medical Colleges for pausing expansion – 20 years ago – a trend that has long since reversed, as illustrated by the Post’s own data.

Social media response

The National Bureau of Economic Research used the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, to promote the paper starting July 22. It had 23 retweets and 57 likes, but prompted no responses.

Atul Grover, MD, PhD, executive director of the American Association of Medical Colleges Research and Action Institute, who was quoted in the Post's article, commented that the piece was “Fascinating stuff … (Did you know) the US has about the same # of MD specialists per capita as the UK? And fewer than Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Italy, Hungary, Germany, & Switzerland?”

Dr. Ali Khan, epidemiologist and retired assistant surgeon general, replied: “Transparency. US doctors are at the top of the heap of income earners. Skewed to specialist. And why does the federal govt need to pay for residency slots? If anything, should expand only for primary care.”

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