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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Doctor salary survey indicates that primary care among least lucrative options

Doctors working in the primary care field of pediatrics made $173,000 a year, on average, in 2012. To put that in perspective, orthopedists made an average of $405,000 annually.
Doctors working in the primary care field of pediatrics made $173,000 a year, on average, in 2012. To put that in perspective, orthopedists made an average of $405,000 annually. AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Primary care doctors working in family medicine made an average of $158,000 in 2011.

By 2012, they were making considerably more: about $175,000 annually.

That's according to the latest edition of Medscape's annual Physician Compensation Report, which for 2012 included data from about 22,000 physicians in the United States.

Here's what primary care providers, on average, made in 2012:

  • Pediatricians: $173,000 (up from $156,000 a year before)
  • Family medicine doctors: $175,000 (up from $158,000)
  • Internal medicine doctors: $185,000 (up from $165,000)

While those salaries may seem high, primary care providers are virtually at the bottom of the medical barrel in terms of pay. Compare them to some of their more specialized counterparts:

  • Dermatologists: $306,000
  • Plastic surgeons: $317,000
  • Urologists: $340,000
  • Radiologists: $349,000
  • Cardiologists: $357,000
  • Orthopedists: $405,000

All of those doctors saw rises in the average of their pay from the previous year, too. The only type of doctor included in the survey who made less than a primary care provider in 2012 was an HIV/infectious disease physician, who made $170,000 on average.

Compensation and the doctor shortage

Compensation is a big part of the conversation swirling around how the U.S. will address its primary care doctor shortage: There's little financial incentive to become one of the most-needed doctor types. That need will become especially acute once the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion kicks in at the beginning of next year, extending health insurance to millions more.

In the meantime, primary care continues to see a shortage of doctors. A Senate report found the U.S. to be short 16,000 primary care doctors given its current level of need. Another study in the Annals of Family Medicine said by 2025, the U.S. will need 52,000 more primary care doctors. This means, among other things, that midlevel providers are playing an amplified role in the medical setting, especially in areas like South Los Angeles that are underserved.

One possible reason the primary care field isn't drawing providers: Medical school is expensive.

"I have friends who have hit half-a-million dollars in student loans just from undergrad and medical school," said Andy Gausepohl, a fourth-year medical student at USC's Keck School of Medicine, in a recent interview.

In a more focused analysis of the data received from family medicine doctors, Medscape reported that more than half do not feel fairly compensated. If they could choose their medical path again, only 28 percent said they'd choose family medicine.

Among pediatricians, a little more than half feel fairly compensated; if they could choose again, 44 percent would still choose to go into pediatrics.

For both family medicine and pediatric doctors, "gratitude/relationships with patients" was the most common response when asked about the most rewarding part of their job.

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