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Physician salary 2018: Modest increase in doctors’ earnings

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Physician incomes continued to rise, albeit modestly, for the eighth year in a row, according to Medscape’s 2018 Physician Compensation Report. The report compiles responses from more than 20,000 physicians across 29 specialties. Salaries for U.S. physicians averaged $299,999 in the most recent report, up from $294,000 in 2017.

Chart showing average salary for physicians by medical specialty

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Highest-paying physician specialties

Overall, specialists earned about $100,000 more than primary care physicians — $329,000 versus $223,000, respectively. The three top-earning specialties from last year remain among the top this year, with plastic surgery jumping to the number one spot.

In 2018, the top five earners among all physician specialties are:

Lowest-paying physician specialties

And at the bottom of this year’s list are: 

The fastest income growth

Three-quarters of specialties saw a salary increase this year, with psychiatry topping the list with a 16% increase. According to the report, demand for mental health services has exploded, while the number of psychiatrists has not kept pace. Four specialties saw double-digit growth:

On the other end, one-quarter of specialties faced decreased earnings, including Neurology and Pathology (both -2%), Diabetes & Endocrinology and Otolaryngology (both -4%), Urology (-7%), and General Surgery (-9%).

Physicians most likely to feel fairly compensated

Overall, 55% of physicians feel they’re fairly compensated. Topping the list are:

Those least satisfied with their compensation

When unsatisfied physicians were asked how much they felt they deserved to earn, about 45% felt they should be earning 11% – 25% more than they do; another 32% think they should earn 26% – 50% more.

The report notes that some physicians say satisfaction comes from two factors: 1) feeling a sense of importance about and accomplishment in one’s work, and 2) the amount of work and frustration they deal with compared with income earned.

A great deal of frustration may be a result of the ever-increasing time physicians must dedicate to paperwork and administrative tasks. Nearly three quarters (70%) spend more than 10 hours per week on paperwork — an increase of 13 percentage points since last year.

Location matters

Specialty is not the only factor in determining a physician’s income; geography plays a significant role as well. This year’s report revealed that doctors earned the most in the North Central (average income $319,000) and Southeast (average income $309,000) regions of the country.

The lowest-earning region was the Northeast, with an average income of $275,000, followed by the Southwest, where the average income was $277,000.

Chart showing Physician compensation by geography

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States with the highest earnings potential

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the top-earning states are on the East Coast. And Nevada, which was in the top five states with the highest earning potential, is among the 10 least-populated states in the country. The highest-earning states are:

States with the lowest earnings potential

On the bottom end of the earnings list are:

The impact on locum tenens physicians

For locum tenens physicians, the regional differences in earning potential can be either crucial or unimportant, depending on your priorities. Some physicians accept locum tenens jobs solely as a means to increase their income. In addition to working a permanent position, they use weekends or vacation time to earn additional pay. This supplemental income can be a big help in repaying student loans, starting a private practice, or saving for a down payment on a home. In these cases, you may want to seek out the highest-paying locum tenens job opportunities available.

But physicians also choose locum tenens contracts based on non-financial priorities, such as:

  • Easing into retirement
  • Test driving post-residency opportunities
  • Perfecting a work/life balance
  • Exploring the country

Whatever your motivation — financial or otherwise — locum tenens is a great way to increase your income, explore different opportunities, try new practice settings, and broaden your overall experience. To explore locum tenens jobs in your specialty, start your search here.

About the author

Lisa Daggett

Lisa Daggett is well-versed on the topic of locum tenens staffing and was a regular contributor to LocumLife, Healthcare Traveler, and Travel Nurse magazines. She served as associate editor of RN Magazine and as an editorial assistant for Business & Health.


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