More docs consider retirement amid COVID-19 pandemic

Physician pay increased as the labor market tightened, although the pay bump isn’t expected to slow the wave of doctors retiring or leaving the field, according survey results published Thursday.

Doctors’ average pay increased 3.8% in 2021, up from a 1.5% rise in 2020, Doximity found by polling more than 46,000 physicians. But nearly half of respondents indicated they were thinking about leaving the field, on top of the 1% of the workforce who already retired early under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The fact that we’re having such a high proportion of physicians retiring early when compensation is increasing suggests the solution is not entirely in compensation,” said Dr. Natalia Birgisson, director of strategy at Doximity. Reducing reducing doctors’ administrative workload may improve retention, she said: “A lot of physician burnout is coming from physicians not having enough time with patients.”

While compensation increased for all specialties in 2021, small specialties experienced the most significant gains. Preventive medicine physicians received the biggest pay boost at 12.6%. Hematology, nuclear medicine, pediatric nephrology, occupational medicine and oral surgeons saw the next-highest compensation increases.

But payment disparity between male and female clinicians hasn’t improved over the last three years, according to Doximity’s data. Female physicians earn 28% less than male doctors, which translates to around $123,000 a year. The pay gap is far narrower among nurse practitioners and physician assistants and has decreased to about 10%.

“I see this as a potential call to action for male and female physicians to recognize there is more we can do for each other,” Birgisson said.

The healthcare workforce is already dealing with a labor shortage among physicians, nurses, technicians and others. Further attrition could make patients wait longer for care.

Pay discrimination, in part, is why more female doctors burn out compared to their male counterparts, surveys show. Forty-four percent of female physicians surveyed by Merritt Hawkins in 2019 said that gender discrimination has caused them to seek another practice setting, while nearly a third said it has caused them to consider early retirement.

“Gender discrimination is more than just a challenge for individual doctors,” said Travis Singleton, executive vice president of Merritt Hawkins. “When it diminishes the overall supply of physicians, it becomes a matter of public health.”

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