COVID-19 Will Likely Change Docs' Incentive Targets, Bonuses: Survey

Marcia Frellick

May 14, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Productivity benchmarks for physicians are likely to be lowered in light of plunging patient numbers from COVID-19, and bonuses are expected to take a hit, according to experts interviewed by Medscape.

"Employed physicians are often getting a guaranteed salary for a month or two, but no bonuses or extra distributions," Joel Greenwald, MD, a financial adviser for physicians in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, told Medscape Medical News.

"This amounts to salary reductions of 10% to 30%," he said.

The COVID-19 crisis dramatically reversed the consistent upward trajectory of physician compensation, according to a Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) survey, as reported by Medscape Medical News.

The survey, conducted April 7–8, found that practices have reported an average 55% drop in income. The report also found an average decrease in patient volume of 60%.

Before Pandemic, Salaries Were Rising

The pandemic interrupted a steady gain in compensation for this year compared to last, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2020.

The report reflects data gathered from October 4, 2019, to February 10, 2020, and includes online survey responses from 17,000 physicians in more than 30 specialties.

Before the pandemic, primary care physician (PCP) pay was up 2.5%, to $243,000, from the previous year's average of $237,000. Specialists saw a 1.5% increase, from $341,000 in 2019 to $346,000 this year.

Reported compensation for employed physicians included salary, bonus, and profit-sharing contributions. For those self-employed, compensation includes earnings after taxes and deductible business expenses before income tax.

This report reflects only full-time salaries. But most physicians work more than full time. The report notes that physicians overall spent 37.8 hours a week seeing patients. Add to that the 15.6 average hours spent on paperwork, and doctors are averaging 53.4 hours a week.

Administrative demands varied widely by specialty. Physicians in critical care, for example, spent the most hours on paperwork (19.1 per week), and ophthalmologists spent the least on those tasks, at 9.8.

Orthopedists Top Earners Again

The top four specialties were the same this year as they were last year and were ranked in the same order: orthopedists made the most, at $511,000, followed by plastic surgeons, at $479,000, otolaryngologists, at $455,000, and cardiologists, at $438,000.

Pediatricians and public health/preventive medicine physicians made the least, at $232,000, followed by family physicians ($234,000) and diabetes/endocrinology specialists ($236,000).

Despite the low ranking, public health/preventive medicine providers had the biggest compensation increase of all physicians, up 11% from last year. Two specialties saw a decrease: otolaryngology salaries dropped 1%, and dermatology pay dropped 2%. Pay in gastroenterology and diabetes/endocrinology was virtually unchanged from last year.

Kentucky Has Highest Pay

Ranked by state, physicians in Kentucky made the most on average ($346,000). Utah, Ohio, and North Carolina were new to the top 10 in physician pay this year, pushing out Connecticut, Arkansas, and Nevada.

More than half of all physicians receive incentive bonuses (58% of PCPs and 55% of specialists).

The average incentive bonus is 13% of salary, but that varies by specialty. Orthopedists got an average $96,000 bonus, whereas family physicians got $24,000.

According to the report, "Among physicians who have an incentive bonus, about a third of both PCPs and specialists say the prospect of an incentive bonus has encouraged them to work longer hours."

Gender Gap Similar to Previous Year

Consistent with Medscape compensation reports over the past decade, this year's report shows a large gender gap in pay. Among PCPs, men made 25% more than women ($264,000 vs $212,000); among specialists, they made 31% more than their female colleagues ($375,000 vs $286,000).

Some specialties report positive changes from growing awareness of the gap.

"Many organizations have been carefully analyzing their culture, transparency, and pay practices to make sure they aren't unintentionally discriminating against any group of employees," Halee Fischer-Wright, MD, pediatrician and CEO of MGMA, told Medscape Medical News.

She added that the growing physician shortage has given all physicians more leverage in salary demands and that increased recognition of the gender gap is giving women more confidence and more evidence to use in negotiations.

Three specialties have seen large increases in the past 5 years in the percentage of women physicians. Obstetrics/gynecology and pediatrics both saw increases from 50% in 2015 to 58% in 2020. Additionally, women now account for 54% of rheumatologists, up from 29% in 2015.

Would You Choose Your Specialty Again?

Of responding physicians who were asked if they would choose their specialty again, internists were least likely to say yes (66%), followed by nephrologists (69%) and family physicians (70%).

Orthopedists were most likely to say they would choose the same specialty (97%), followed by oncologists (96%) and ophthalmologists and dermatologists (both at 95%).

Most physicians overall (77%) said they would choose medicine again.

Despite aggravations and pressures, in this survey and in previous years, physicians have indicated that the top rewards are "gratitude/relationships with patients," "being very good at what I do/finding answers, diagnoses," and "knowing that I make the world a better place." From 24% to 27% ranked those rewards most important.

"Making good money at a job I like" came in fourth, at 12%.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.

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