Industry Trends Physician

Physician salary report 2021: Compensation steady despite COVID-19

graphic of physician salary report 2021

While COVID-19 made 2020 a difficult year for doctors, Medscape’s 2021 physician salary report found that physician income in 2020 was similar to numbers reported for 2019. However, 92% of those who experienced a drop in income attributed it to COVID-19-related factors, including fewer hours and fewer patients. The report also looked at the highest-paid physician specialties, pay differences between self-employed and employed physicians, and which states paid physicians the most.

Chart showing how much physicians earned in 2020

The highest-paid physician specialties

Specialists in plastic surgery earned the highest physician salary in 2020 — an average of $526,000. Orthopedics/orthopedic surgery is the next-highest specialty ($511,000 annually), followed by cardiology at $459,000 annually. The top five highest-earning specialties remained the same as in 2019 except for urology, which now sits at number four — earning an average of $427,000 annually.

Chart showing average physician salary in 2020 by specialty

Plastic surgeons’ salaries increased by 10% in 2020, though some plastic surgeons did not have as much work when elective surgeries stopped during the pandemic. Oncologists saw a 7% salary increase, and rheumatologists and cardiologists enjoyed a 5% salary increase.

When asked whether they felt they were fairly compensated, 79% (compared to 67% in 2019) of oncologists thought this was true, along with 69% of psychiatrists, 68% of plastic surgeons, and 67% of dermatologists. On the other end of the scale, 44% of those who specialize in infectious disease felt they were fairly compensated, and just half of diabetes and endocrinology specialists felt this way.

Chart showing how fairly compensated physicians feel in 2020

Earnings for self-employed vs. employed physicians

Self-employed physicians earned an average annual salary of $352,000 in 2020, compared to a $300,000 average annual salary for employed physicians. Though the number of self-employed doctors has declined over the past few years, Medscape’s medical resident survey found that 21% of residents anticipated owning their own practice or becoming a partner. It’s important to note that locum tenens physicians are included among self-employed physicians as well.

Chart comparing compensation for employed and self-employed physicians in 2020

Pay disparity between male and female doctors

The survey found the pay disparity between male and female physicians continues. Men who worked as primary care physicians earned about 27% more than women ($269,000 versus $211,000 annually).

The disparity between male and female specialists is even greater: Male specialists earned 33% more than female specialists in 2020 ($376,000 for men and $283,000 for women). Women in the workforce were also hit hardest by COVID-19’s economic effects.

Chart showing the gender pay disparity for physicians in 2020

However, the report shows that fewer women work in the highest-paying specialties. Just 9% of women surveyed work in orthopedics and orthopedic surgery, and 14% work in cardiology. In plastic surgery, the highest-paid specialty, women make up 20% of the workforce.

The highest paying states for physicians

It may come as a surprise that Alabama pays the highest physician salary overall — an annual average of $348,000. Kentucky ($340,000), Oklahoma ($338,000), Indiana ($337,000), and Missouri ($332,000) round out the top five highest-paying states.

Chart comparing average physician salary by state in 2020

COVID-19’s impact on physician compensation

Pandemic salaries were not consistent for all doctors, however. Even though 45% of physicians surveyed said they did not face financial or practice-related problems in 2020 due to COVID-19, 13% experienced no income for a period (an average of three months), and more than one-fifth saw a reduction in hours.

Chart showing the events that affected physician salary in 2020

Physicians find work rewarding despite challenges

Twenty-three percent of physicians surveyed said the most challenging part of their job was dealing with the many rules and regulations. Physicians also spent an average of 15.6 hours per week on paperwork, EHR documentation, administrative duties, reading clinical articles, and participating in professional organizations. COVID-19 also negatively affected many physicians, with about 64% saying the pandemic made their burnout worse.

Despite the challenges, many physicians continue to find their work fulfilling. About 26% of those surveyed said the most rewarding part of their job was helping others and making the world a better place, another 26% cited gratitude from and relationships with patients, and 24% most valued finding answers and diagnoses.

Chart showing the most rewarding aspects of a physician's job in 2020

Although COVID-19 had an impact on physicians and other healthcare providers during 2020, most doctors have recovered their salaries — and some even reported earning a higher wage during the pandemic. Overall, Medscape’s physician salary report suggests that healthcare is on the road to recovery in 2021.

Interested in learning more about working locum tenens? Give us a call at 954.343.3050 or view today’s locum tenens physician job opportunities.

Chart images from Medscape.com

About the author

Lindsay Wilcox

Lindsay Wilcox is a healthcare writer and editor with more than 10 years of professional writing experience. When she's not circling typos, she's enjoying fish tacos and hanging out with her family.

3 Comments

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  • I have always wondered why the issue of taxation is never raised every time the physician pay is considered. It is ORDINARY INCOME, according to the IRS and so every dollar earned is taxable! Were the physician salaries CAPITAL GAINS INCOME, their taxation would be much less than otherwise. In other words the total compensation of a physician-scientist head of a public pharmaceutical company, for example, should be taken into consideration as well, instead of simply looking at the salaries of the physicians in practice only.

    Hence, a closer look at these salaries does not show the whole picture at all, simply because the heavy taxation per dollar earned of their salaries has been completely disregarded, while those earning a salary plus the stock options, which are not realised income and therefore not taxable until liquidated, should be included but are not.

  • Neurosurgery is indeed conspicuously absent, which as of August 21, 2021, according to Salary.com, should be an estimated $626K and well above Plastic Surgery.

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