Male physicians received substantially higher pay than their female counterparts from leading medical device companies, and the wage disparity widened in recent years, a new study found.
The study reported that the median wage gap between male and female physicians grew three-fold from 2013 to 2019.
Nearly 97% of the five highest-earning doctors at these companies were men while only 3% were women, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine and Weill Cornell Medicine. And among the 1,050 payments sampled, male doctors earned an average of $1.2 million a year while the female physicians made $41,000 on average. Even accounting for factors such as tenure and specialty, the researchers determined the gender pay gap grew from $54,000 to $166,000 within seven years.
Wage differences are not unique to healthcare. In 2019, the Census Bureau found that on average men earned almost 19% more per year than women.
Researchers investigated physician compensation at the 15 highest-grossing medical device companies, including Abbott Laboratories, Cardinal Health and Boston Scientific. The highest earning physicians were determined based on consulting fees, compensation for speaking engagements, gifts and travel expenses.
The study's findings, published in JAMA Network Sept. 28, indicate why the average female physician may earn as much as $2 million less than her male counterpart over a 40-year career.
Dr. Sue Bornstein, board of regents chair of the American College of Physicians, said she was disturbed but not surprised by the findings.
“Women physicians, in all specialties, typically start out at lower salaries and compensation levels,” Bornstein said. To rectify this imbalance, she said professional societies such as the American College of Physicians should advocate for more transparency and gender pay equity.
The pay disparity spans male-dominated fields such as urology and orthopedic surgery as well as female-dominated fields such as pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology. Male obstetricians and gynecologists earned three times the pay of females, the study showed.
Studies have also shown that women doctors spend more time on average treating patients and documenting the encounters on electronic health records, which results in fewer separate visits between them. And that can cause the women doctors to be paid less.
“One of the challenges is that we still live in a fee-for-service payment model where the more [visits that occur], the more you get paid,” Bornstein said.
To determine the top earning men and women at the medical device companies, researchers used the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ open payments database that began tracking financial information concerning clinicians and the healthcare industry in 2013, as mandated by Congress.
The gender disparity exists within healthcare regardless of female physicians comprising one-third of the workforce and female medical students making up more than 50% of enrollees in 2020.
In addition to pay, gender inequity manifests itself in top leadership positions. Of the 15 companies surveyed, only one had a female CEO, and all companies had more men than women on their boards of directors.
This trend permeates throughout the healthcare industry. Only five of 41 health-sector companies on the Fortune 500 list for 2022 had female CEOs.
“Like a lot of things in society, we have to explore our own biases before we can fix this,” Bornstein said.