For Physicians, It's Not Always All About the Salary

July 31, 2012

A new study says for a better financial outcome, I should have become a physician assistant. But it's not just about financial outcomes for physicians.

There was an interesting study that came out recently that compared male and female family physicians with male and female physician assistants. Considering what one would earn over a lifetime versus educational debt, the paper concluded that for men it was more financially advantageous to become a physician but for women, it was more financially advantageous to become a physician assistant. Of course, this has multiple potential implications as well as a multitude of causes (if the conclusions reached in this one study are accurate).

I’m not quite sure how to interpret this study personally. Does this mean that my husband should’ve been the employed physician and I the stay-at-home parent? If so, at the minimum (if he was a family physician) he’d make, on average, $300,000 more than me over his professional lifetime. Maybe it means I just chose poorly - I should’ve saved myself the extra years of education and training and started earning money sooner. Or maybe, I should join with the chorus of female physicians who use this study to bolster the argument that there is still gender inequality when it comes to pay.

I’m a family physician, so I’m obviously not in medicine for the money. Then again, I think few doctors use salary as the sole or even principal motivator. Sure, it’s a nice living, but the sacrifices made to get here are pretty intense. It’s likely that the return on the investment of time and pretty much your entire 20s would be even more profitable in the corporate or legal world. So, I guess I look at this study primarily with a "who cares" attitude. So, I comparatively make less money over my career than I would have if I’d chosen another path - either as PA or as a different specialty or profession.

In the field of happiness psychology, once you make more than about $75,000 a year, you pretty much max out on money’s ability to buy happiness. Most physicians are well over that mark. So, I should be just about as happy as a physician in any other specialty. Of course, I appreciate my salary and the comfort it affords my family. However, to view my profession as a physician through the salary lens is to miss about 1,803 reasons why I love being a doctor that have nothing to do with money.

Today, I saw a patient in clinic who I followed for her pregnancy. She ended up having a cesarean section after I spent many hours by her bedside managing a difficult labor. She came in this morning overflowing with joy in her role as a new mother, wanting to simply talk to me about her next pregnancy. I didn’t get well-compensated for the delivery, since I had to ask the obstetrician to do the section. I didn’t charge her for today’s visit because it wasn’t really a medical issue. All in all, I guess by the books taking care of this patient was a wash- not a financially beneficial move for me.

However, I loved the time I spent with her and the role, however small, I’ve been privileged to play in her family’s life. I don’t have a specific dollar figure on what that’s worth but on my balance sheet, it definitely puts me in the black.

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