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Physician earnings have plateaued since 1996

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Meanwhile, earnings of other health professionals continue to rise, according to data from the Current Population Survey




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Physician earnings as a whole have remained stagnant over the past 15 years, while the earnings of other health professionals have continued to rise, according to research published late in 2012.1 For example, physician earnings increased 19.9% from 1987–1990 to 1996–2000 (95% confidence interval [CI], 15.2% to 24.5%). However, from 1996–2000 to 2006–2010, physician earnings decreased 1.6% (95% CI, –5.4% to 2.2%), and earnings for other health professionals continued to grow from 1996–2000 to 2006–2010, increasing 34.4% for pharmacists, for example (95% CI, 28.4% to 40.3%) ( TABLE ).

Earnings of health-care professionals from 1987–2010

Health-care professionalMedian earnings
Physicians (n = 6,258)$143,963$147,135$166,773$167,478$157,751
Dentists (n = 1,640)$105,511$120,075$132,029$123,126$129,795
Pharmacists (n = 1,745)$70,341$72,685$76,616$89,4321$101,279
Registered nurses (n = 17,774)$44,149$48,181$47,739$52,944$54,886
Physician assistants (n = 761)$42,229$37,201$45,484$49,127$64,818
Health-care and insurance executives
(n = 2,378)
Adapted from Seabury et al1

Details of the study

Seabury and colleagues drew from the Current Population Survey—a nationally representative, monthly survey of approximately 60,000 households conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau—to gather data on occupation, number of hours worked, self-reported earnings, and other information. The survey had a high response rate (93.3%). Investigators focused on median earnings because “survey earnings were capped by the US Census to protect identities.” 1 Among the occupations reported were:

  • physician or surgeon
  • dentist
  • pharmacist
  • registered nurse
  • physician assistant
  • health-care executive
  • insurance executive.
Physician data were not broken down by specialty.

Analysis was limited to subjects older than 35 years because “the majority of physicians under this age are in training.”1

The sample included 30,556 individuals who reported being a health professional. Of these, 6,258 were physicians (20.5%).

Why the stagnant earnings?

Seabury and colleagues hypothesize that the growth of managed care, cuts to Medicaid payments, poor growth to Medicare payments, and “bargaining” by insurance companies have contributed to the sluggish physician earnings since 1996–2000.

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