Is physician wealth tied to enhanced well-being?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Medically reviewed by Amanda Zeglis, DO, MBA
Published July 1, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Previous research suggested that increases in well-being were only correlated with incomes up to $75,000 per year.

  • New research doesn’t place a cap on this relationship.

  • Even though higher income may be linked to greater well-being, factors such as physician burnout must be carefully considered.

In 2021, a year after the pandemic began, patients were once again making appointments, practices reopened, and elective procedures resumed. Consequently, according to the Medscape 2022 Physician Compensation Report, physicians’ salaries also rebounded.[] Average overall income was $339,000, with primary care pulling in $260,000 and specialists making $368,000.

With a return to form for physician compensation, did rebounds from the stagnant or lower salaries earned during pandemic-stricken 2020 make physicians happier? And will making more money from working harder bring greater well-being?

Old data

In a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Princeton researchers cited Gallup data representing a daily survey of 1,000 US residents and found their evaluation of life, alongside their emotional well-being, rose with increasing income, but not past an annual salary of about $75,000.[]

The authors concluded that “high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness” and “low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”

Specifically, low income increases the emotional pain of stressors such as poor health, divorce, and loneliness.

New data

For some time, experts pointed to research that people with annual incomes greater than $75,000 didn’t experience any increases in well-being.

In a study published in PNAS in 2021, however, experts questioned whether these data reflected actual emotional experiences, or was skewed by the accounts being retrospective and dichotomous when obtained.[]

To make this distinction, researchers from the University of Virginia assessed more than 1 million real-time reports of the experienced well-being of Americans.

The researchers found that experienced well-being increases linearly with income and even does so with an equally steep slope past $80,000 per year with no upper threshold. The same was also identified to apply to the evaluation of quality of life, on reflection.

The authors asked if the data offered insight as to why income and well-being are correlated.

“The answer to this question is necessarily speculative, since the factors linking well-being to income are likely numerous, complex, and interrelated," they wrote.

"One possibility is that people spend money to reduce suffering and increase enjoyment, and that marginal dollars are differentially deployed against these aims depending on one’s income."

Kahneman, et al.

Should you work more?

The answer to this question is personal. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the increased risk of burnout among physicians who work longer hours and take on greater responsibility.

Burnout is linked to emotional exhaustion, a decreased sense of accomplishment, and depersonalization.

“This problem represents a public health crisis with negative impacts on individual physicians, patients, and healthcare organizations and systems,” according to the authors of a review published in the Journal of Internal Medicine.[]

"Drivers of this epidemic are largely rooted within healthcare organizations and systems, and include excessive workloads, inefficient work processes, clerical burdens, work-home conflicts, lack of input or control for physicians with respect to issues affecting their work lives, organizational support structures, and leadership culture," they wrote.

What this means for you

Data suggest that higher incomes could result in an increased sense of well-being. However, the risks and benefits must be weighed to identify the breakpoint between enhanced well-being versus burnout. Ultimately, for those who feel they can make more money without burning out, there could be great rewards on both the personal and financial fronts.

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