Money lessons from 5 doctors who became billionaires

By Alistair Gardiner
Published December 10, 2020

Key Takeaways

While there’s good money to be made in healthcare, very few doctors go on to become billionaires. Some do, however—so what sets them apart from the rest?

From holding ingenious patents to making prescient business moves, the five doctors listed below are currently ranked among the wealthiest in the world.  

Thomas Frist Jr.  

Thomas Frist Jr. began his career as a US Air Force flight surgeon and, according to the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans in 2020, has a net worth of $14.1 billion as of December 2020. Born in Nashville, TN, Frist, 82, earned a bachelor's degree from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University and his medical degree from Washington University in St. Louis, MO.

In 1968, he and his father, Thomas F. Frist Sr., founded Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), which helped turn Nashville into the for-profit healthcare destination it is today. The company grew fast. In 1969, when HCA filed its initial public offering, it had 11 hospitals; by the end of that year, its portfolio included 26 facilities. According to Forbes, the firm now owns and operates 185 hospitals and 1,800 sites of care in 21 US states and in London, England.

HCA has been subject to a number of buyouts. In one of these instances, when HCA was acquired by a private investment firm in 2006, the value of the transaction was $33 billion—the largest leveraged buyout in history at the time. Thomas Frist Jr. and his father were the first father-son combination to be inducted into the Healthcare Hall of Fame. 

Patrick Soon-Shiong

According to Forbes, Patrick Soon-Shiong clocks a net worth of $6.3 billion as of December 2020. The 68-year-old was born in South Africa to Chinese immigrants, and graduated from high school at age 16. He completed a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa, a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, and then a medical degree at University of California-Los Angeles, before becoming a board-certified surgeon in 1984. But it was in developing cancer treatments that Soon-Shiong made his fortune. 

After focusing on cancer and transplants during his surgical career, Soon-Shiong switched from treating patients to entrepreneurism. He was responsible for inventing the blockbuster drug Abraxane, which took an existing chemotherapy medication called Toxol and wrapped it in a protein, allowing it to be delivered to tumors with more ease. Abraxane is now used to treat advanced cases of pancreatic, breast and lung cancer. In order to fund the development of Abraxane, he used revenues from a small producer of generic drugs called Fujisawa, which he purchased in 1998. Soon-Shiong also used these profits to speed the drug through the FDA’s regulatory process, leading to its approval in 2005. After splitting his business in two, he sold both parts in the late 1990s for a combined $9.1 billion. As of 2019, sales of Abraxane reportedly exceeded $1 billion annually.

Soon-Shiong still owns a number of businesses—including several newspapers and a network of health startups—one of which was chosen as part of the federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” to help develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Phillip Frost

While he’s never practiced medicine, Philip Frost, 84, did receive a doctorate in medicine before he turned to the businesses and investments that have seen him accrue a net worth of $2.6 billion as of December 2020, according to Forbes. Frost received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and his medical degree at the Yeshiva University/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. After teaching dermatology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, he started on the road that led to his current level of wealth: purchasing and selling pharmaceutical companies. 

In 1972, Frost and a business partner bought Key Pharmaceuticals. After reformulating the company’s asthma drug to increase its efficiency and overseeing the development of a few other new treatments, Frost sold the company in 1986 for $836 million. Over the next several decades, Frost would purchase various pharmaceutical firms, then build up their value before selling them. In 2005, the Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals purchased Ivax, a drug company founded by Frost in 1987, for $7.6 billion. Frost now runs Opko Health, a producer of diagnostics. According to Forbes, in 2018, the SEC accused Frost of participating in a $27 million “pump and dump” scheme involving the sale of unlawful stocks; Frost settled with the SEC that year, without admitting to or denying the allegations.

Wu Yiling

Wu Yiling, 71, comes from a lineage of medical doctors, and was a longtime Chinese medicine practitioner, but his wealth accumulated after founding a pharmaceutical company. According to Forbes, he has a net worth of $2.3 billion as of December 2020. Yiling earned medical degrees at the Hebei Medical University in the People’s Republic of China and the Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that he set up the company that would make him rich.

After 11 years of practicing Chinese medicine, Yiling founded Yiling Pharmaceutical in 1992. Now called Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical Co Ltd (SYPC), the firm produces and sells Chinese medicines that treat a range of diseases and conditions, from cardiovascular disease to the flu. The company’s major products include the following pills: Tongxinluo, Shensongyangxin, Lotus Qingwen, Qili Qiangxin, and Bazi Bushen. The firm holds more than 350 patents, including 10 patents for drugs it invented. SYPC is now one of the largest exporters of pharmaceuticals in China. In an interview with China Daily, Yiling said he attributed his success to a huge investment in research and development (R&D). For example, in 2017, the company put $38.2 million into R&D.

Gary Michelson 

Gary Michelson found his passion for inventing and problem-solving after feeling restrained by his work as an orthopedic and spinal surgeon. He now claims to hold over 950 patents worldwide, most of which are related to advancements in spinal surgery, and he has a net worth of $1.7 billion as of December 2020, according to Forbes. It was, however, a legal settlement that initially made him a billionaire. 

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Temple University and his medical degree at Hahnemann Medical College (both in Philadelphia, PA), Michelson worked as a spinal surgeon before retiring. During this time, he came up with a number of new technologies, tools, and techniques, most of which helped spinal surgeons to better treat various conditions and ailments. From 2001-2005, Michelson was involved in a lawsuit with Medtronic, which ended with the company handing Michelson a settlement of $1.35 billion.

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