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Losing Ground: Physician Income, 1995-2003

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Publication Date: June 2006

Publisher(s): Center for Studying Health System Change

Author(s): Ha T. Tu; Paul B. Ginsburg

Series: Tracking Report No. 15

Topic: Health (Physicians, nurses, and other health personnel)

Type: Report


Between 1995 and 2003, average physician net income from the practice of medicine declined about 7 percent after adjusting for inflation, according to a national study from the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC). The decline in physicians’ real income stands in sharp contrast to the wage trends for other professionals who saw about a 7 percent increase after adjusting for inflation during the same period. Among different types of physicians, primary care physicians fared the worst with a 10.2 percent decline in real income between 1995 and 2003, while surgeons’ real income declined by 8.2 percent. But medical specialists’ real income essentially remained unchanged. Physicians reported working slightly fewer hours overall but spent more time on direct patient care. Flat or declining fees from both public and private payers appear to be a major factor underlying declining real incomes for physicians. The downward trend in real incomes since the mid-1990s likely is an important reason for growing physician unwillingness to undertake pro bono work, including charity care and volunteering to serve on hospital committees.