These doctor specialties are the happiest

By Charlie Williams
Published December 4, 2020

Key Takeaways

There’s no doubt: It’s been a long year. While silver linings can always be found, it’s likely that most of us will remember 2020 as a time when we struggled to find our way in a bizarre new normal—one that has shocked us to the core, and is continuing into the foreseeable future. 

Essential workers have felt the pangs of this chaos most poignantly. That might be especially true for physicians, who were charged with standing between the world and a virus that has killed more than a quarter-million Americans, many of whom they were powerless to save as hospitals overflowed, resources remained scarce, and viable treatments lurked perpetually in the offing. And healthcare professionals continue to fight the pandemic at the front lines, where long hours and constant danger of exposure are the norm.

To be fair, things weren’t ideal for physicians before the coronavirus pandemic, either. Each year, high numbers of doctors were burning out. According to Medscape’s National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2020, between 29% and 54% of physicians experienced symptoms of burnout in 2019. That means that even in a year when there was no pandemic, at least 3 in every 10 physicians reported burnout symptoms. Anyone can take a guess at how those numbers might change once the new results, collected during the pandemic, are tallied early next year.

This past year, MDLinx conducted a COVID-19 survey of US physicians, and found that nearly half of doctors are rethinking their careers.  

But before you hang up your white coat forever (or button it up for the first time as a new doctor) it’s important to consider that many physicians—even amid a once-in-a-generation pandemic—still find joy and fulfillment in practicing medicine.

Happiness outside of work

Donning the stethoscope and helping patients solve their problems can be an incredibly rewarding challenge. But there’s more to a physician’s career—and to life—than working with patients. Some specialties require an egregious amount of time spent on documentation—as much as 2 hours in the electronic medical record (EMR) for every hour of direct patient care—while others place much of that burden on support staff and technology. Likewise, some work can leave you feeling fulfilled after a long day, while other work may leave you drained.

Here are the specialists who are happiest outside of work, according to the Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2020 (ranked by percentage of physicians responding to the survey question):

  • Rheumatology; General Surgery: 60%

  • Public Health & Preventive Medicine; Allergy & Immunology: 59%

  • Orthopedics; Urology; Ophthalmology: 58%

  • Pediatrics: 57%

  • Dermatology: 56%

These are the specialists who are least happy outside of work:

  • Neurology; Critical Care: 44%

  • Internal Medicine: 48%

  • Gastroenterology; Diabetes & Endocrinology; Pulmonary Medicine: 49%

  • Family Medicine; Anesthesiology; Pathology: 50%

  • Nephrology; Cardiology; Oncology; Psychiatry; Radiology: 51%

Happiness at work

On-the-job happiness is a quite different story. In fact, according to the Medscape’s 2017 happiness report—the most recent report that included at-work happiness as a measure—the least happy physicians outside of work were still happier than the happiest physicians at work.  

Here are the happiest specialties at work (based on the percentage of physicians who said they were either very happy or extremely happy at work): 

  • Dermatology: 43%

  • Ophthalmology: 42%

  • Allergy & Immunology: 41% 

  • Orthopedics; Psychiatry & Mental Health; Pulmonary Medicine: 37%

  • Pediatrics; Pathology; Oncology: 36%  

And the least happy specialists at work:

  • Rheumatology; Nephrology: 24%

  • Emergency Medicine; Internal Medicine: 28%

  • Family Medicine: 29%

  • Critical Care: 30%

  • Cardiology; Diabetes & Endocrinology; Infectious Disease; Urology: 31%

Age is more than just a number

While specialty choice can play a big part in determining how physicians feel day to day, generational attitudes toward the practice of medicine—as well as societal, cultural, political, and environmental changes that impact generations differently—can also make a big difference. 

According to the 2020 Medscape report, Millennial physicians reported being happiest outside of work by a slim margin (81% compared with 77% in Generation X and 76% of Baby Boomers), while Baby Boomers reported being unhappy outside of work at a roughly equal rate as Generation X (18%) but slightly more than Millennials (15%).

What’s more, according to the report, physicians’ ages played a role in whether they spent enough time on their personal health and wellness. While that certainly is not the only factor that plays into overall happiness, it’s an important one.

Baby Boomer physicians reported practicing self-care most often, with 9% always giving themselves adequate time for personal health and wellness, versus just 6% of Gen Xers and 5% of Millennials. Overall, Gen Xers spent the least amount of time caring for themselves—their generation was least likely to report spending time on wellness “most of the time” and most likely to “rarely” or “never” dedicate time to ensure their personal health was up to snuff.

It’s all about the confidence

Feeling like you’re good at your job—and of course, enjoying time out of work and taking good care of yourself—can make it feel like you’re living on easy street. Alternatively, feeling like you’re constantly underwater, overwhelmed, and punching above your weight class can make life feel like one big losing battle. For its 2019 happiness report, Medscape looked at self-esteem.  

Here are the physicians with the highest self-esteem:

  • Plastic Surgery: 73%

  • Urology: 68%

  • Ophthalmology; Diabetes & Endocrinology: 67%

  • Orthopedics: 66%

  • Nephrology: 65%

And those with the lowest rates of high self-esteem:

  • Infectious Disease: 47%

  • Oncology: 48%

  • Internal Medicine: 50% 

  • Family Medicine; Pathology: 51%

  • Pediatrics; Psychiatry: 53% 

Keeping the bills at bay

They say money can’t buy happiness, but life is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to think twice about making ends meet. And when the gaps between the highest and lowest average specialty salaries are the size of, well, an entire salary, it makes sense to keep an eye on what you stand to gain, if you are diving headfirst into your career.

Here are the highest-paid specialties (per the 2020 report):

  • Orthopedics: $511K

  • Plastic Surgery: $479K

  • Otolaryngology: $455K

  • Cardiology: $438K

  • Radiology: $427K

And the lowest paid:

  • Pediatrics; Public Health & Preventive Medicine: $232K

  • Family Medicine: $234K

  • Diabetes & Endocrinology: $236K

  • Infectious Disease: $246K

  • Internal Medicine: $251K

The bottom line

It’s hard to definitively say which specialty is happiest or unhappiest because happiness is a subjective measure—only you can decide what will bring you joy. But when you weigh the factors above in tandem, a few correlations begin to emerge. 

Plastic surgeons are rip-roaring with confidence and cash. Less than half of diabetes and endocrinology specialists report being happy outside of work and most are not paid as well as their peers. Rheumatologists are adept at living their best life outside of work, but don’t always have a good time once they clock in.

So keep in mind which measures matter most to you—and choose your specialty accordingly.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter