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What are the Highest-Earning Medical Specialties?

April 23, 2019 BY Alanna Moriarty

What are the Highest-Earning Medical Specialties?

There are more than 1.7 million physicians and allied health professionals in the U.S. according to Definitive Healthcare data. Last year, more than 20,000 of these physicians in nearly 30 specialties responded to Medscape’s survey on physician compensation.

Plastic surgery was the highest-earning medical specialty in 2018, perhaps unsurprisingly. The proliferation of social media apps, filled with images of edited and posed pictures of celebrities and influencers, is prompting a new generation to undergo cosmetic procedures younger and to achieve a wider variety of aesthetic visions. Rhinoplasty, liposuction, and breast augmentation have held firm on the list of most-common cosmetic procedures, but newer procedures such as pectoral implants, labiaplasty, and buttock implants have recently joined the list.

Also on the list of highest-earning specialties is orthopedics. Given the steady rise in demand for lower joint replacements, this is another foreseeable winner. In 2018 alone, U.S. hospitals reported more than 43,000 outpatient knee replacement procedures (CPT 27447), and over 4,100 outpatient hip replacements (CPT 27130 and 27132) according to Definitive Healthcare’s claims data. 

Highest-Earning Medical Specialties in 2018

  1. Plastic surgery: $501,000
  2. Orthopedics: $497,000
  3. Cardiology: $423,000
  4. Gastroenterology: $408,000
  5. Radiology: $401,000
  6. Dermatology: $392,000
  7. Anesthesiology: $386,000
  8. Otolaryngology: $383,000
  9. Urology: $373,000
  10. Oncology: $363,000

Fig 1 Data from Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2018 via the Advisory Board.

Among the highest-earning physician specialties, only one also sees some of the highest rates of physician burnout. Otolaryngology, the eighth highest-earning specialty, ranks fifth on the list of specialties with high burnout rates. In contrast, three of the most common medical specialties are among the five with the highest reports of physician burnout: internal, family, and emergency medicine. This could be attributed to a variety of factors, including high patient volumes, strict reporting and performance standards, and lack of work-life balance.

Meanwhile, plastic surgeons and dermatologists reported some of the lowest burnout rates among all specialty types. None of the most common specialties made the list of lowest burnout rates.

Most Popular Medical Specialties

  1. Internal Medicine: 138,014
  2. Family Practice: 125,960
  3. Anesthesiology: 107,939
  4. Surgery (all specialties): 99,055
  5. Pediatrics: 71,869
  6. Emergency Medicine: 61,080
  7. Psychology: 57,302
  8. Radiology: 51,604
  9. Obstetrics & Gynecology: 50,801
  10. Optometry: 39,744

Fig 2 Data from Definitive Healthcare’s platform on physicians, including proprietary intelligence on specialty, affiliations, as well as CMS and all-payor diagnosis and procedure analytics.

Despite this seemingly high number of care providers, hospitals and healthcare organizations across the country are experiencing staffing shortages. A lack of qualified healthcare professionals is leading hospitals and healthcare organizations to drive up salaries in an attempt to attract talent – only to have providers leave for better positions after a few years. Rural communities are particularly affected, as there are already so few providers available.

Overall, specialties in primary care fields tend to be the lowest-paying, including internal, family, and pediatric medicine. This could be a contributing factor in high burnout rates, with providers experiencing high levels of stress for lower compensation than their peers in other specialties.

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