How Much Does a Doctor Make By Specialty?

Article Summary:

According to a Medscape Physician Compensation Report, the average physician salary for primary care physicians is $260,000 a year, and specialists average about $368,000 annually. But those numbers don’t really give a complete picture of doctors’ salaries. This is because wages can vary a lot based on your particular specialty, the region of the country you work in, and what type of institution you work for. And, unfortunately, a physician’s race or gender also plays a role in their average salaries.

We are thankful that physicians are willing to invest insane amounts of time and effort in medical school and beyond with the goal of healing people and making a difference in the community. That said, it doesn’t hurt that doctors also command some of the highest salaries overall.

Today we’ll take a look at average salaries in the medical field for physicians by specialty as well as some of the other factors that can have an impact on the total compensation doctors can expect to receive in their chosen position or specialty.

How much does a doctor make by specialty?

While salaries do vary from year to year (and typically increase), some areas of medicine tend to remain fairly consistent on both the high and low ends of the salary range. For example, those whose specialty is in areas of plastic surgery, orthopedics, and cardiology tend to be on the highest end of the average salary for a physician. Those who specialize in family medicine, pediatrics, and preventative medicine tend to fall on the lower end of the salary spectrum.

Here’s a look at the average annual physician salaries for different specialties as of 2020.

SpecialtyAverage Salary
Plastic surgery$526,000
Orthopedic surgery$511,000
Cardiology$459,000
Urology$427,000
Otolaryngology$417,000
Radiology$413,000
Gastroenterology$406,000
Oncology$403,000
Dermatology$394,000
Ophthalmology$379,000
Anesthesiology$378,000
General surgery$373,000
Critical care$366,000
Emergency medicine$354,000
Pulmonary medicine$333,000
Pathology$316,000
OB/GYN$312,000
Nephrology$311,000
PM&R$300,000
Neurology$290,000
Rheumatology$276,000
Psychiatry$275,000
Allergy and Immunology$274,000
Internal medicine$248,000
Infectious disease$245,000
Endocrinology$245,000
Preventative medicine$237,000
Family medicine$236,000
Pediatrics$221,000

Factors affecting doctors’ salaries

While doctors’ salaries vary a lot by specialty, they can also vary within the same specialty. These variations largely depend on where the doctor is located as well as the physician’s race and gender.

Type of institution

Where a doctor chooses to practice their medical career can have a large impact on how much income they can expect to get. For instance, physicians in private practice typically command higher salaries than those who work in research facilities, universities, hospitals, and healthcare clinics.

However, the downside to private practice is higher costs for overhead, including typically more expensive liability insurance premiums. Because there is no underlying hospital or other facility to assume some of the responsibility, private practitioners typically need more comprehensive protection.

Geographical impact on physician salaries

It’s common to assume that higher salaries for a physician would be in more affluent metropolitan areas, but that is not always the case. In fact, Medscape found that some of the highest reported incomes for physicians overall are in the southern states, such as Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Oftentimes metropolitan areas such as New York, Boston, and Chicago have a glut of fresh doctors to choose from, so total compensation may not be as high as in rural areas. This has led some institutions in places that are, to varying degrees, underserved by the medical community to offer additional incentives to work there. That might come in the form of higher salaries, paid travel expenses, and even healthy sign-on bonuses to supplement income in some cases.

Race and gender role in average physician salaries

It’s not surprising, sadly, but important to note that male physicians earn more than their female doctors in virtually every case, all else being equal. That includes male specialists versus female specialists, in addition to primary care physicians or those in family medicine.

And White male physicians make the highest average annual salaries of all, including women plus all other races. A study conducted by Harvard Medical School and the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics found that White male physicians had an adjusted median annual pay that was 35% higher than Black male doctors.

Furthermore, both Black and White male doctors earned substantially more than their female counterparts. The study also found that while Black and White female doctors earn similar salaries in relation to each other, their average salary is still less than that of all male doctors, adjusting for specialty.

It is important to note that, generally speaking, men tend to go into higher-paying specialties than women. In fact, men outnumber women in nearly all medical specialties, with the exception of OB/GYN. According to the aforementioned Medscape study, women accounted for 57% of all OB/GYN positions. By contrast, only 16% of plastic surgeons, one of the highest-paying specialties, are female doctors.

High costs of becoming a doctor

A doctor is a highly respected position to have, not least because their job is to heal people. But you might wonder why exactly do physicians earn so much money?

First of all, it’s worth noting that being a physician is a really difficult job. The average person is not up to the physical and mental demands a doctor encounters on a regular basis. The daily job is more of a cerebral cost, but there are other costs future physicians should make note of.

Costs of medical school

On average, it takes medical students about 11 to 14 years to complete their education and become full-fledged physicians. That includes four years as an undergrad, another four years in medical school, and three to five years of residency training. Specialists often also undergo fellowship training of one to five years under a seasoned medical professional within the chosen specialty.

Unless budding physicians come from generational wealth, their education translates into an enormous amount of student debt. And with relatively low resident salaries, that means former students are saddled with hefty student loans and high monthly payments even before they’ve started to earn a good living with a full-fledged physician salary.

In fact, a 2020 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges found the median cost of four years of medical school was around $250,000 at public colleges and about $330,000 at private institutions. Furthermore, the study’s data showed that 2020 medical school graduates left college with an average debt burden of $207,000.

The high costs of tuition help to give some insight into why doctors are so highly paid, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. That being said, even physicians may find it helpful to refinance their student loans and lower their monthly payments.

Malpractice insurance

Another inevitable cost for doctors is the need for malpractice insurance, and it isn’t cheap. Also known as medical professional liability insurance, malpractice insurance is meant to protect doctors in the event that they cause a patient bodily harm or injury.

A lot can go wrong in the medical field, including medication mishaps, surgical mistakes, and misdiagnoses, to name a few. Patients can file a lawsuit in any of these cases, and without liability insurance, doctors and hospitals would be forced to pay these costs out of pocket.

This makes carrying malpractice insurance not only a necessity but often a requirement. Federal law does not require physicians to carry liability insurance, and not all states do either. However, most hospitals or clinics will require it and also some of the health insurance policies the hospital or practice accepts.

Malpractice insurance could range anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 annually, and that varies a lot by specialty. For example, those in surgical specialties will typically pay much higher insurance premiums than pediatricians, dermatologists, psychiatrists, and those in primary care positions.

Pro Tip

Future physicians concerned about high student loan payments might consider practicing in underserved areas after they leave medical school. This way they can take advantage of various tuition assistance or loan forgiveness programs.

FAQs

Are doctors eligible for loan forgiveness programs?

There are a number of ways for a doctor to take advantage of loan forgiveness programs and thus get out from under the burden of notoriously high student loan debt. Some possible options are through loan forgiveness programs offered by national, state, and local governments, in addition to private organizations.

Typically, a med student who has completed their residency will agree to practice in designated health professional shortage areas (HPSAs) for roughly two to four years. In exchange, the student receives help repaying their loans for their education and (sometimes) a living stipend.

Loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement opportunities are two important ways for a physician to offset medical school debt and help out communities in need of quality medical care.

Are dentists richer than doctors?

On a general average, a dentist makes slightly less money than a doctor, but that can vary widely depending on factors such as geographic area, education, and specialties. And that stands for either a doctor or a dentist. For example, oral surgeons in private practices could very well earn significantly more than pediatricians who work at wellness clinics.

Key Takeaways

  • The average annual salary for a doctor tends to be very high, significantly more so for those in specialty areas.
  • Salaries can vary dramatically depending on the location of the practice, both in terms of geographic region and the type of institution they practice in.
  • Specialties in the medical arena tend to be dominated by male physicians, whereas female specialists are typically only in the majority for the OB/GYN specialty.
  • Race and gender play a critical role in income for doctors, with men of all races outpacing female doctors in total compensation, and White males commanding the highest pay.
View Article Sources
  1. Physician Compensation Report — Medscape
  2. Loan Forgiveness for Medical School Debt — American Academy of Family Physicians
  3. How Med Student Loan Burdens Can Deepen Health Disparities — American Medical Association
  4. New Study Finds Pay Gaps in Physician Income by Race, Gender — University of Southern California
  5. How Much Do Dentists Make? Average Salary by State — SuperMoney
  6. How Much Do Veterinarians Make? — SuperMoney
  7. Top 20 High Paying Jobs in America — SuperMoney
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