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How Can We Encourage Medical Students to Choose Primary Care?

A Radical Suggestion – Pay Specialists Less

Since 1997 the number of US medical students choosing to go into primary care has decreased by more than 50%. It seems that sources as diverse as the Obama Administration and the Wall Street Journal think that we should find a way to encourage medical students to choose primary care specialties in order to allow Americans to have the best and most cost effective care. This is very problematic when primary care specialists earn considerably less, often 50-70% less than physicians in specialties where most of the revenue is produced by doing procedures. For years when asked about the disparity in physician salaries I’ve said, “I think primary care physicians are fairly compensated. I just think a lot of other physicians are overpaid.”

If you look at the 2009 AMGA survey of physician income it is clear that the pay you can expect as a physician has little to do with how hard you work, how long you train, or how stressful or difficult your work is, and everything to do with whether you perform procedures that are highly compensated. It is hard to think of specialties less demanding in terms of afterhours call, emergent life-threatening care, and overall lifestyle than dermatology ($350,627), diagnostic non-interventional radiology ($438,115) and Radiation Therapy ($413,518) (median salary in parentheses). Compare these to what I’d consider some of the most difficult, intellectually challenging, and demanding specialties: Pediatric Oncology ($205,999), Infectious Disease ($222,094) and Adult Neurology ($236,500). Family Medicine is one of the very few specialties where the first number in the median salary is a 1.

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