There was an increase in compensation for medical doctors of all specialties in 2021, but this was followed by stagnant or decreased compensation in 2022.
Research shows that the six highest-earning MDs of 2023 specialize in some form of surgery.
After MDs who specialize in surgery, the highest-paid physicians include radiation oncologists, cardiologists, urologists, and radiologists.
When it comes to settling on a specialty, there are several factors to take into consideration: How long you’d like to train, which field lends itself to your specific skill set, and if the career will provide long-term fulfillment. These are just a few factors to consider, according to an article published by The White Coat Investor.
Another top consideration is, of course, salary. Physicians who’ve yet to choose their specialty—or are considering switching to a different one—may want to know which MDs earn the most. That’s why MDLinx compiled a list of the top-five, highest-paid doctors by specialty, so let’s dive in.
The six highest-earning specialties of 2023, according to Doximity’s 2023 Physician Compensation Report, are all related to surgery.
Grouped together, they are as follows:
Thoracic surgery: $706,775
Orthopedic surgery: $624,043
Plastic surgery: $571,373
Vascular surgery: $557,632
Oral and maxillofacial surgery: $556,642
As the highest-paid doctors in the US, neurosurgeons have navigated major changes in their field as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a study published by Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 82.6% of neurosurgeons reported working fewer hours due to the pandemic; this is potentially linked to the drop in surgical cases and simultaneous rise in telemedicine.
Researchers also identified symptoms of burnout in 20.4% of participants, which paled in comparison to the 77.6% of whom who felt satisfied with their careers.
Although surgery may be a highly fulfilling and lucrative field for some, the pursuit of this path is far from easy. Those who choose surgery—which requires at least 5 years in residency—must have their “why” in mind.
“Training in thoracic surgery never has been idyllic and likely never will be. It is intense,” wrote Victor A. Ferraris, MD, PhD in an article for the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. “The justification for this intensity is, and always has been, the magnitude of patient illness in those who need cardiothoracic interventions.
"This disease burden warrants nothing less than the best effort that trainees and attending staff can provide."
— Victor A. Ferraris, MD, PhD, writing for the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery
After surgical MDs, the next highest-paid doctors are radiation oncologists, according to Doximity’s report.
Clocking in at approximately $547,026 a year, radiation oncologists may be described as “caring, intuitive and computer savvy,” said Sheila Rege, MD, a radiation oncologist of 23 years, when describing her experience to the AMA.
“A lot of our time is spent with technology—sculpting beam shapes, which is heavy on physics, and analyzing 3D images,” Dr. Rege said.
Although this tech-forward field is mostly non-emergent and rewarding beyond financial compensation, Dr. Rege emphasizes the personal sacrifices one must make in order to reap the benefits of a specialty that enables long-term patient relationships.
“I have missed many weddings and birthdays because I knew a patient would have been crushed to not see me on their five-year anniversary or any other,” she said. “So, unlike some other fields that allow shift work, in radiation oncology the long-term relationship with patients brings the most satisfaction, but it also means you have to plan your vacation time carefully and give up some flexibility for last-minute changes.”
Cardiologists rank third on the list of highest-paid doctors of 2023, earning an average salary of $544,201, as noted in Doximity’s report.
Doctors in this field saw an average increase in salary of about $54,000 from 2022, according to the 2022 Medscape Cardiologist Compensation Report.
That same report stated that, despite how well cardiologists are paid, only about half, or 57%, feel fairly compensated.
Overall, 88% reported they would choose cardiology again, ranking among the top-third of physicians who feel the same about their own specialty.
The biggest challenges faced by cardiologists are “the number of rules and regulations and having to work long hours,” according to the Medscape authors.
The rewards, on the other hand, include establishing good doctor-patient relationships and the knowledge that practicing cardiology is “making the world a better place.”
Following cardiologists, according to Doximity, are urologists—they make an average of $505,745 per year.
Urologists’ average income rose by nearly $44,000 from 2022, according to Medscape’s 2022 Urologist Compensation Report.
Similar to cardiologists, Medscape’s urologist report states that 59% of these doctors feel that they’re paid fairly. An even greater majority—90%—said they would stick with urology if given the chance to choose a specialty again.
When asked about their challenges, urologists identified the top three as the following: working with EHR systems, adhering to a high number of rules and regulations, and navigating difficult interactions with patients.
The highest rewards of this field, however, mirrored those of cardiology: The relationships that urologists build with patients and being able to perform the job well.
Finally, the fifth highest-paid MDs of 2023 are radiologists, according to Doximity’s report.
Earning an average salary of $503,564, radiologists are “collegial, smart and hardworking,” Loralie Ma, MD, told the AMA.
According to Dr. Ma, a diagnostic radiologist and nuclear medicine specialist of 24 years, one of the bigger challenges in diagnostic radiology is retrieving a complete history.
For many, the rewards of being a radiologist outweigh the challenges, as 90% of radiologists would reportedly choose radiology again, according to Medscape’s 2023 Radiologist Compensation Report.
Dr. Ma spoke about some of these rewards.
"In the emergency setting, we help make the difficult first diagnoses. In the outpatient setting, we are key in determining the patient's diagnosis and excluding diagnoses as well."
— Loralie Ma, MD
“I really love being a radiologist," Dr. Ma said.
What this means for you
As an MD, regardless of what specialty you choose, you’ll still make at least two- to three-times as much as the average American household income. Those who are interested in earning more may find themselves in one of the above specialties. Still, salary—although an important factor to consider—isn’t everything. Physicians can choose a specialty they know brings them joy; this will help build a career with longevity, which will lend itself to a healthy savings account, in time.
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