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Physician pay story has its ups and downs

When pay raises are small, some can take solace if their compensation rose above the rate of inflation, but that rate—as measured by the consumer price index—is a moving target, so using it as a historical measure may be of limited value. But that won't stop me from trying to do so.

Each year Modern Healthcare collects data from organizations collecting their own data on what doctors in different specialties are making. It all makes for a lot of comparing and contrasting. And the point of this post is to illustrate that a 3% raise last year may not have gone as far as the same increase two years earlier.

To recap this year's survey, intensivists led the way with an impressive 10.3% increase in average compensation. In all, seven specialties had compensation increases above or at the 3.2% inflation rate; six had increases below it; and 10 specialties saw their average pay drop. In this last group were plastic surgeons, whose average compensation dropped 6.6% after experiencing a 5.8% increase the previous year.

To compare, in the 2011 survey, radiation oncologists led all specialists with a 6.4% increase in average compensation, while 18 specialties had increases above the previous year's 1.5% inflation rate and two specialties (hospitalists and pathologists) recorded decreases in average compensation.

In the 2010 survey, it was possible to have a decrease and still be above the previous year's inflation rate, which was negative 0.4% in 2009. Dermatology led all specialties with a 5.3% increase in average compensation, as a total of 16 specialties registered increases. None of the specialties that saw decreases in average compensation managed to have a loss that was still something of a gain, as all were below the CPI’s negative 0.4% inflation rate. These specialties were invasive cardiology (down 0.9%); emergency medicine (down 1.1%); urology (down 1.4%); radiation oncology (down 1.7%); intensive medicine (down 1.7%); gastroenterology (down 2.8%); and plastic surgery (down 3.3%).

In the 2009 survey, dermatology had the highest increase with a 6.7% jump in average compensation. Ten specialties had increases above the previous year’s 3.8% inflation rate, and three had decreases in average compensation: plastic surgery (down 7.7%), anesthesiology (down 1.5%), and radiation oncology (down 0.5%). This was also the year intensivists and neonatologists were added to the survey.

For 2008, plastic surgery led the field with a 10.9% increase in average compensation. Nine specialties had increases above the previous year’s 2.8% inflation rate, and two specialties had decreases: obstetrics/gynecology (down 0.6%) and psychology (down 5.6%). Also, a new specialty was added to the survey: radiation oncology.

Of course, comparing doctors with doctors is one thing. Some are doing much better than others, while all seem to be doing better than their patients.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on the 128 million or so U.S. residents who were employed in May 2011. Average compensation was $45,230, with an average hourly wage of $21.74 and a median wage of $16.57.

The report included only a handful of medical specialties. Among those listed, average hourly wages ranged from $81 for pediatricians to $113 for anesthesiologists. In comparison, lawyers averaged $62.74 an hour and chief executives $84.88. These figures may come up at a few negotiating tables.

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks.

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