I’ve recently become curious about career satisfaction within the healthcare industry. What contributes to happiness for doctors in the States, and which doctors currently enjoy their jobs the most?
It’s all too painfully clear that many doctors report high levels of burnout, feelings of anger and/or anxiety, and even depression so severe it leads to suicide. And, understandably, navigating the past few years with COVID-19 hasn’t helped.
The Medicine Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2023: Contentment Amid Stress found that 75% of doctors were very or somewhat happy at work before the pandemic. That number has dropped to less than half since the pandemic.
This isn’t surprising, given understaffing, greater workloads, and all the other factors that challenge today’s physicians.
Some doctors enjoy their work more than others. Is it related to the specialty they practice? Where they live in the country? The quality of their lifestyle?
And what seem to be the “aspects of the job that physicians find the most rewarding?” Despite data showing “many physicians don’t feel as though they are being fairly compensated and that they are dissatisfied with many aspects of the job,” the ones they do find the most rewarding are:
- Helping others (26%)
- Relationships with patients (26%)
- Finding answers, diagnoses (24%)
- Earning the salary (12%)
- Being proud to be a physician (5%)
- Teaching (4%)
- Other (2%)
- Nothing (2%)
Career Satisfaction by Overall Happiness
When it comes to determining career satisfaction by specialty, I found several “lists” that ranked the top 10 happiest doctor specialties. Not all of them included the same ones, but some notable overlaps existed.
Becker’s ASC Review ranked their top 10 by which physicians said they would choose their specialty again (they ranked 29 specialties, but I’m only including the top 10):
- Dermatologists (99%)
- Orthopedics (97%)
- Plastic surgery (96%)
- Gastroenterologists (95%)
- Infectious disease physicians (94%)
- Ophthalmologists (94%)
- Radiologists (92%)
- Urologists (90%)
- Rheumatologists (89%)
- Cardiologists (88%)
Physicians Thrive’s survey concluded that “if given the chance to change careers, 78% of physicians said they would choose to work in medicine again.” The ones most likely to choose the same specialty are:
- Dermatology (96%)
- Orthopedics/orthopedic surgery (96%)
- Oncology (96%)
- Ophthalmology (94%)
- Otolaryngology (93%)
- Radiology (93%)
- Gastroenterology (93%)
- Urology (92%)
- Plastic surgery (92%)
- Cardiology (92%)
MDLinx provided several happiness lists. Their “happiness at work” top 9 are:
- Dermatology (43%)
- Ophthalmology (42%)
- Allergy and immunology (41%)
- Orthopedics (37%)
- Psychiatry and mental health (37%)
- Pulmonary medicine (37%)
- Pediatrics (36%)
- Pathology (36%
- Oncology (36%)
Med School Insiders looked at the 2020 and the 2019 specialties with the greatest proportion of happy physicians (according to Medscape’s Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report. In 2020, the top 5 specialties were:
- General surgery
- Public health & preventative medicine
- Allergy and Immunology
In 2019, the top 4 specialties were:
- General surgery
Dr. Bill compiled his top “10 happiest doctor specialties according to work-life balance:”
- Family medicine
- Clinical immunology/allergy
- General/clinical pathology
Across the pond, BMJ Careers compiled their top 10 “NHS consultant job satisfaction” list like this:
- Sports and exercise medicine
- Medical ophthalmology
- Rehabilitation medicine
- Clinical neurophysiology
- Audiovestibular medicine
- Renal medicine
- Palliative care
Career Satisfaction by Compensation
It’s a popular saying that money can’t buy happiness. And if the only good thing in your life is a lot of money, that seems undoubtedly true. Just money without purpose, doing work you love, family and friends, good health, etc., will not bring happiness, but what about money if you have other pieces of your life in place?
Last year, two anonymous donors gave away $2M U.S. dollars in a study to see the effects of this type of largess. The money was given away to 200 people in chunks of $10,000 cash transfers.
The researchers pulled a significant amount of data as they measured the self-reporting of how happy these 200 people felt and how happy a control group of 100 people who didn’t get a dime felt.
Each of the 200 recipients had to spend all the money within three months and record how they spent it. The study is fascinating, and came to some interesting conclusions:
1. People with household incomes above $123,000 didn’t report “noticeable improvements in their happiness.”
2. The more money lottery winners win yields even bigger boosts in happiness.
3. “[In] any study of money and happiness, outcomes can also depend on the particular circumstances of people’s lives and their expectations.”
MDLinx reported last year that “physicians earned an average of $339,000. Specialists earned an average of $368,000, while primary care physicians earned an average of $260,000.
The highest-earning specialties (unchanged since 2017) are:
- Plastic surgery ($576,000)
- Orthopedics ($557,000)
- Cardiology ($490,000)
- Otolaryngology (between $438,000-$469,000)
- Urology (between $438,000-$469,000)
- Gastroenterology (between $438,000-$469,000)
- Dermatology (between $438,000-$469,000)
- Radiologists (above $400,000)
- Ophthalmologists (above $400,000)
- Oncologists (above $400,000)
Physicians Thrive released their 2022 Physicians Compensation Report, which found that “overall, the Midwest and the South make the most, while physicians on the East and West coasts earn the least.” Their top 10 list of which specialty makes the most varied a little from MDLinx’s report in both specialty and average yearly salary.
- Plastic surgery ($526,000)
- Orthopedics and orthopedic surgery ($511,000)
- Cardiology ($459,000)
- Urology ($427,000)
- Otolaryngology ($417,000)
- Radiology ($413,000)
- Gastroenterology ($406,000)
- Oncology ($403,000)
- Dermatology ($394,000)
- Ophthalmology ($379,000)
Bonuses are considered supplemental wages — income earned on top of regular wages. You’ll still need to declare the bonus as income and pay taxes on the amount, but these figures aren’t included in the average yearly salary shown above.
The average incentive bonus by specialty is:
- Orthopedics/orthopedic surgery ($116,000)
- Ophthalmology ($87,000)
- Otolaryngology ($72,000)
- Urology ($72,000)
- Cardiology ($71,000)
- Radiology ($69,000)
- Gastroenterology ($60,000)
- Anesthesiology ($55,000)
- OBGYN ($48,000)
- General surgery ($47,000)
As of last year, the five specialties with the biggest salary increases are:
- Plastic surgery (+10%)
- Oncology (+7%)
- Rheumatology (+5%)
- Cardiology (+5%)
- Diabetes and endocrinology (+4%)
Specialties with the “smallest gender wage gap” are:
- Nuclear medicine (women earn 2.5% less)
- Hematology (women earn 11.4% less)
- Urology (women earn 12% less)
- Colon/rectal surgery (women earn 12.2% less)
- Emergency medicine (women earn 12.6% less)
Career Satisfaction in Workplace Conditions
In October 2022, the U.S. Surgeon General released a “new framework for mental health and well-being in the workplace.” Dr. Vivek Murthy, our Surgeon General, said:
“A healthy workforce is the foundation for thriving organizations and healthier communities.
As we recover from the worst of the pandemic, we have an opportunity and the power to make workplaces engines for mental health and well-being, and this Surgeon General’s Framework shows us how we can start. It will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm, foster a sense of connection among workers, show workers that they matter, make space for their lives outside work, and support their growth. It will be worth it because the benefits will accrue for workers and organizations alike.”
Key workplace components that influence physicians’ happiness at work include:
- Amount of time spent with patients versus time spent on admin work
- Lack of perceived respect
- Lack of autonomy
- Insufficient pay
While I couldn’t find any data on which physician’s specialty enjoys the best workplace conditions, this factor is a tremendous consideration for career satisfaction.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) quotes from Professor Dame Carol Black’s speech at the International Conference on Physician Health. “‘Good work’ is good for your health.” According to Dr. Black, what constitutes “good work” includes:
- Work that is safe and stable
- Work that offers flexible arrangements, fair employment and opportunities for training.
- Work that offers a sense of “individual control”
- Good leadership
- Higher levels of staff engagement
Career Satisfaction With Work-Life Balance
Research reports that 55% of doctors would take a salary reduction if they could gain a better work-life balance. The average physician says they would give up between $20,000 – $50,000 annually for a more balanced lifestyle.
Work-life balance comprises several factors, like how many hours you work. The predictability or unpredictability of the work hours (being on call) is also a core factor.
Specialties that don’t answer calls out of hours and work less than other doctors rank higher on the work-life balance scale. These specialties seem to have the advantage on this score:
- Family medicine
- Clinical immunology/allergy
- General/clinical pathology
In “Why to Choose ENT, or Otolaryngology,” Dr. Sukaina Hasnie, an otolaryngology resident, had this to say:
“Unlike other surgical specialties, ENTs can choose to work in private practices, completely based in surgical centers, with a 4-day work week, and no call! On the other hand, if you’re a work junkie, you can work as many as 7 days a week, with long workdays and multiple monthly calls.”
The top five specialties that report the lowest levels of burnout are:
- Public health and preventive medicine
Career Satisfaction Outside Work
When it comes to career satisfaction outside of work, Medscape’s Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2020 found these nine specialists are happiest outside of work:
- Rheumatology (60%)
- General surgery (60%)
- Public health and preventive medicine(59%)
- Allergy and immunology (59%)
- Orthopedics (58%)
- Urology (58%)
- Ophthalmology (58%)
- Pediatrics (57%)
- Dermatology (56%)
Career Satisfaction in Relationships
And when it comes to relational happiness, 85% of male physicians report being married, while 70% of women report being married. A full 50% (eight in 10 “say that “overall…they are in a ‘very good or ‘good marriage.'” These numbers are similar to those reported in 2021.
The list of specialists with the happiest marriages are:
- Otolaryngology (91%)
- Allergy & Immunology (91%)
- Dermatology (90%)
- Rheumatology (90%)
- Nephrology (90%)
- Ophthalmology (89%)
- Orthopedics (86%)
- Urology (85%)
- Public Health & Preventive Medicine (84%)
- Ob/Gyn (84%)
Perhaps part of that is due to the majority of physicians’ commitment to taking dedicated vacation time each year:
- 30% of physicians take between 1-2 vacation weeks
- 40% of physicians take between 3-4 vacation weeks
- 12% of physicians take between 5-6 vacation weeks
Once I gathered all the data above, I could crunch the numbers on my own informal survey of which careers create the most job satisfaction for doctors. I identified the specialties that reported the highest levels of:
- Overall happiness
- Work-life balance
- Life outside work
- Relational happiness
I’ve awarded one point each time a specialty made one of the top 10 (or fewer) lists I compiled above. A few of these also made the list of the top specialties with the lowest amounts of burnout.
1. Dermatology tops the list with 8 total points. Four of these points come from consistently making the overall happiness top 10, plus one point each for work-life balance, life outside work, relational happiness, and one of the lowest levels of burnout.
The average salary of a dermatologist is $438,000 – $469,000.
2. Ophthalmology also garnered 8 total points, with five points coming from consistently making the overall happiness top 10. It also ranked high for work-life balance, life outside work, and relational happiness.
The average salary of an Ophthalmologist is over $400,000.
3. Allergy/Immunology was one point behind at 7 total points. Four points were awarded for consistently showing up on overall happiness top 10 lists. The extra three points came with work-life balance, life outside work, and relational happiness.
The average salary of an Allergist/Immunologist is $298,000.
4. Orthopedics earned 7 total points, with three points coming from a high quality of life outside work, relational happiness, and low levels of burnout.
The average salary of an Orthopedist is $557,000.
5. Public Health collected 5 points from making two of the top 10 overall happiness lists. It earned three points with a high quality of life outside work and relational happiness, plus low levels of burnout.
The average salary of a public health physician is $251,000.
6. Otolaryngology collected 5 points on three of the top 10 overall happiness lists. The extra two points came from a high degree of work-life balance and relational happiness.
The average salary of an Otolaryngologist is $438,000 – $469,000.
7. Pediatrics is the last specialty with 5 total points. Three of these points were awarded for making the top 10 overall happiness lists, and two were awarded for work-life balance and the quality of life outside of work.
The average salary of a Pediatrician is $216,500.
8. Pathology earned 4 total points — two from the top overall happiness lists, plus one each for work-life balance and low levels of burnout.
The average salary of a Pathologist is $296,500.
9. Urology also earned 4 total points. This specialty made two of the top 10 overall happiness lists, plus reporting happiness in life outside of work and their relationships.
The average salary of a Urologist is $405,340.
10. Rheumatology was the last on my top 10 list for career satisfaction. The numbers are identical to those of Urology — high levels of happiness outside of work and in their relationships, plus showing up on two top 10 lists for overall happiness.
The average salary of a Rheumatologist is $245,540.
I enjoyed learning which doctors enjoy their careers the most and am very happy that my specialty in Pediatrics made the top 10 list!
If you would like to learn more about getting more out of your life and taking control of the future and the work you do, contact me at Connect with EntreMD.