Is it better to be a doctor now than it was 50 years ago?

By Physician Sense
Published May 22, 2020

Key Takeaways

The stress and discord surrounding the COVID-19 response may have some physicians feeling a bit nostalgic. It brings to mind Ronald Regan’s famous campaign question of, “Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago?” Well, what about 50 years ago? Is the medical career and the practice of medicine actually better than it was 50 years ago?

It’s a question we’ll be answering over the coming months in a series of posts, due to its enormity and complexity. And we want your opinion on the matter. Did you start practicing in 1970? Please email us your thoughts. How have things changed? Have they changed for better or worse?

This week, we’ll be looking at the financial aspects of the question. We’re kind of geeky here at PhysicianSense and we know that doctors tend to want data. So, here’s what we found.

We began our investigation by establishing estimations of what physicians made in 1970. Keep in mind, this is not a comprehensive overview of physician salary data from the era. It’s simply the best data we could find. Then, we adjusted these salaries for inflation, and compared them to the most recent Doximity report on physician salaries nationwide.

As you’ll see, it looks like physician compensation has largely kept pace with inflation. However, if you’re an internist or a pediatrician, you might have done slightly better in 1970. Surgeons saw the biggest salary gains overall among this group.

The decline in pediatrician pay might be an indirect result of the fact that children today (thankfully) are healthier than they were in 1970. UN data put the child mortality rate in 1970 at 2.34% in North America. CDC data show the rate fell to .73% in 2017. 

Driving the jump in pay for surgeons might be a number of factors, including increasing specialization in surgery as well as an overall increase in the sophistication of procedures — both requiring more training and consequently higher pay. For example, orthopedic surgery has arguably exploded since 1970, offering more and better joint replacements. Furthermore, surgeons continue to remain in private practice (about 73%, according to this report).

So, taking the pay picture into perspective, you might be thinking things seem relatively OK. But wait. There’s more.

This is where things get ugly. Really ugly. While physician compensation has, for the most part, kept pace with inflation, it appears that pay increases are dwarfed by education costs. We began by looking at US News and World Report’s annual ranking of medical schools (we used the ranking for the primary care specialty). The thinking was, let’s look at the top 5, see what the tuition cost was in 1970, adjust for inflation, and compare to current costs.

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