Average net physician income from practicing medicine dropped 5% in real dollars in the economic boom from 1995 to 1999, according to a study by the Center for Studying Health System Change.
At the same time, average income for other skilled professionals increased 3.5% in real dollars, HSC adds in a release from Wednesday.
The center attributes the decline in physician income to discounted fees and utilization restrictions under managed care.
The income of primary care physicians took a bigger financial hit than that of specialists, HSC reports.
Internists, pediatricians and other primary care practitioners saw their net income decline by an average 6.4%, adjusted for inflation, from 1995 to 1999, compared with 4% for cardiologists, surgeons and other specialists.
"The downward trend in physician income represents a dramatic shift from 1991 to 1995, when physicians' income growth exceeded inflation," says Marie Reed, an HSC health research analyst and co-author of the study.
But HSC says medicine remains one of the highest paid professions, with more than half of all physicians earning more than $150,000 and average physician net income coming in at about $187,000 in 1999.
Still, "the real-dollar decline in physician income may help explain why physicians have objected so strongly to Medicare payment reductions and why a smaller proportion of physicians is providing charity care," says Paul Ginsburg, HSC president and co-author of the study.