These physician specialties have the brightest futures: 2023 update

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published September 28, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Skilled surgeons are likely to remain some of the highest earners in medicine.

  • High-demand specialties, such as family medicine and psychiatry, put providers in the driver’s seat of their careers.

  • AI and other technologies will likely affect every specialty, ideally reducing monotonous tasks and paperwork.

Choosing a medical specialty is a significant decision that will shape the rest of your career in medicine. The decision will most likely be influenced by a number of factors, such as compensation, future goals, and more.

In the coming years, physicians will leverage technological advances like AI to reduce administrative burdens and improve patient outcomes. While all may stand to benefit, some specialties will experience greater and more immediate impacts.

Additionally, there’s much speculation surrounding workforce demands in the future, including the need for certain specialists. Looking beyond the starting salary to consider growth potential, work-life balance, and upcoming innovations in different fields will help you choose a specialty that withstands the test of time.

Compensation potential and career opportunities

Soaring inflation has left most Americans with less spending power, and doctors are no exception. Not all specialties start with the loftiest pay, but it’s important to factor in how much you’ll make as a seasoned provider, how easy it is to find employment, and what additional opportunities will be available. 

Surgeons are the highest-paid doctors, with neurosurgeons topping the charts at an average of over $788,000 annually. Thoracic surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, and plastic surgeons follow next on the list, according to Doximity’s 2023 Physician Compensation Report.[]

After surgery, the highest-paid specialties include radiation oncology (averaging $547,026 per year), cardiology ($544,201), urology ($505,745), and radiology ($503,564). Conversely, pediatric and primary care specialties are generally on the lowest end of the salary range.

When it comes to salary increases, compensation growth from 2021 to 2022 was low across the board. However, on the highest end of the spectrum, emergency medicine saw a 6.2% increase, followed by pediatric infectious disease (4.9%) and pediatric rheumatology (4.2%).

Some specialties are in higher demand than others, giving providers more negotiating power when setting contract terms. The top-five in-demand specialties in 2022 included:

  1. Family medicine

  2. Psychiatry

  3. Internal medicine

  4. Emergency medicine

  5. Child and adolescent psychiatry

Anesthesiology also shows promise overall as the 7th most in-demand specialty and the 14th highest average compensation rate.

Burnout, work-life balance, and autonomy

Money helps, but it’s not necessarily the first priority for all physicians, especially students, residents, and fellows.

When Doximity surveyed over 3,000 physicians in the US, 71% said they would be willing to accept or have already accepted less money in exchange for more autonomy or work-life balance.

When deciding on your specialty, the AMA suggests asking yourself the following questions:[]

  • Would you rather spend more time working in an office, speaking with patients, or doing procedures?

  • Do you prefer to build lasting relationships with patients or have short-term interactions?

  • Which patient populations do you want to treat?

  • What does work-life balance look like to you?

The AMA notes that past surveys have shown that burnout is highest when the stakes are high. High-pressure specialties like surgery offer more autonomy but require intentional downtime and greater support systems to balance work demands.

The term “burnout” is becoming almost ubiquitous and has been reported in 40% of US physicians.[] Defining traits of burnout include:

  • Individual stress: Feeling overextended emotionally and physically

  • Depersonalization: Becoming detached from your work

  • Reduced sense of accomplishment: Feelings of inadequacy or underachievement

General practice maintains its reputation as a specialty with a good work-life balance.

According to authors writing for BMJ Careers, providers in general medicine may find themselves with more flexibility to schedule vacations and close ties to the community where they live.[]

Other top job satisfaction scores are found in allergy, audiovestibular medicine, intensive care, pediatric cardiology, and palliative medicine.

Impact of new technology

Technology is changing the way we do everything, including healthcare. While artificial intelligence and other innovative trends are set to replace some occupations altogether, there’s some doubt as to whether they have the potential to take over the world of medicine. 

Monotonous tasks that don’t require creativity or empathy are probably the best suited for AI, as technology can be programmed to perform these aspects of the job efficiently and free from human error. However, the “art of medicine,” where doctors draw from experience and intuition, may not be as easily replicated by robots.

Specialties that may benefit most from technological advances include general practitioners (GPs) who could incorporate wearable devices to digitize patient monitoring outside of the clinic, according to an article in the magazine The Medical Futurist.[]

These devices enable remote advice when appropriate and save time for in-person visits as truly needed. 

GPs already have better access to smarter diagnostic tools (a trend that’s sure to continue), making the best use of limited time to identify and treat a wide range of health concerns. Finally, digital assistance could help reduce administrative work by directing basic questions often fielded by GPs to chatbots and allowing patients to enter information more independently.

Wearable devices can also assist pediatricians who must monitor sensitive vital signs in babies. In addition, technology to treat genetic conditions in utero or early life may improve outcomes and satisfaction for pediatricians.

Aside from family medicine doctors, specialists most likely to benefit from technology include radiologists and ophthalmologists, as noted in The Medical Futurist. For example, radiologists have already started to enjoy innovative, portable ultrasound machines while looking ahead to mobile MRI scanners on the horizon. The future for ophthalmologists is also bright, with 3D-printed digital contact lenses and bionic eye surgery becoming available. 

What this means for you

Physicians in all specialties must remain flexible to stay relevant and keep up with the technology and employment trends of the future. Carefully choosing your specialty is essential, but opportunities to take your career in new directions are always available to those who are willing to take the chance and continue learning.

Read Next: The most burned-out doctors by specialty: 2023 update
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