These physician specialties have the brightest futures

By Alistair Gardiner
Published December 24, 2020

Key Takeaways

2020 has been a tough year for healthcare workers. In November, MDLinx published the results of a survey sent out to US physicians to gauge how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them personally and professionally. Based on more than 1,250 responses, MDLinx learned that roughly half of healthcare workers are seriously rethinking their careers or practice.

The numbers are even higher among primary care physicians, with as many as 55% of family physicians reporting they’re considering making a change. While for some, this meant quitting medicine and finding a new career, for others it simply meant changing their practice setting or moving away from patient care.

Of course, every medical specialty is a little different. Some may offer more compensation, others offer a better work/life balance, and some are more stressful than others. Maybe you’re looking to change your specialty, or maybe you’re a medical student who’s unsure which area you should focus on. Whatever the case, using the most recent data and survey results, MDLinx has broken down which medical specialties have the brightest future as we move into 2021.

Money, money, money

Happiness is not all about money, but having a well-paid job can certainly help lower stress and increase your quality of life. Overall, however, 2020 has not been a great year for doctor wage growth. According to Doximity’s 2020 Physician Compensation Report, the average pay for doctors increased by only 1.5% over this year, a drop from the 4% increases seen in previous years. Beyond that, when compared with the 2019 headline inflation rate of 2.3%, real income declined over the calendar year for physicians. 

But some specialties are still a sure-fire route to a large paycheck. Doximity compiled a list of the highest-paying medical specialties, along with their average annual pay, using self-reported compensation surveys completed in 2019 and 2020 by approximately 44,000 full-time, licensed US physicians who practice at least 40 hours per week. Here are the top 10: 

  • Neurosurgery: $746,544

  • Thoracic Surgery: $668,350

  • Orthopedic Surgery: $605,330

  • Plastic Surgery: $539,208 

  • Oral & Maxillofacial: $538,590

  • Vascular Surgery: $534,500

  • Cardiology: $527,231

  • Radiation Oncology: $516,016

  • Gastroenterology: $485,817

  • Radiology: $485,460

While overall average compensation flatlined in 2020, there were some specialties that did see wage increases. According to Doximity, the COVID-19 pandemic may have generated increased demand in these areas, leading to pay gains for specialists who treat high-risk patients—like those with severe respiratory issues, the elderly, and emergency department patients. Some of these specialties saw compensation growth of nearly 5% from 2019-2020. Here are five medical specialties that saw the greatest wage increases, according to Doximity:

  • Vascular Surgery: Average compensation increased 4.9%, from $509,335 in 2019 to $534,508 in 2020.

  • Physical Medicine/Rehab: Average compensation increased 4.7%, from $338,554 in 2019 to $354,457 in 2020.

  • Geriatrics: Average compensation increased 4.6%, from $260,732 in 2019 to $272,766 in 2020

  • Genetics: Average compensation increased 4.4%, from $242,276 in 2019 to $252,930 in 2020.

  • Emergency Medicine: Average compensation increased 4.3%, from $339,868 in 2019 to $354,615 in 2020.

Supply and demand

Of course, the jobs picture for physicians has changed since COVID-19 took hold, and projections will likely continue to evolve as the pandemic marches on. This past summer, Merritt Hawkins released its annual review of physician recruiting incentives, exploring how the pandemic has affected the job market for physicians.

The report, released annually for the past 27 years, usually examines why demand for doctors in various specialties has continued to rise. However, that’s not the case this year. Instead, the report explores how COVID-19 has temporarily decreased demand for physicians, changing what has been a buyer’s market for physicians to a seller's market for hospitals, medical groups, and other healthcare facilities seeking doctors, according to Merritt Hawkins.

Keep in mind that the report covers physician-recruiter and employer-recruiter interactions between April 1, 2019-March 31, 2020, touching only on the beginning of the pandemic. That said, the report projected there will be an increased demand for the following specialties:

  • Family Medicine (includes FP/OB)

  • Nurse Practitioner

  • Psychiatry

  • Radiology

  • Internal Medicine

The pandemic has been particularly difficult for private physician practices, according to the 2020 Survey of America’s Physicians COVID-19 Impact Edition, from the nonprofit Physicians Foundation. In the survey, conducted July 15-26, 2020, by Merritt Hawkins, 8% of physicians reported their practices had closed due to COVID-19, totaling an estimated 16,000 practices nationwide. 

“Physician practice closures caused by the virus come at a particularly inopportune time as the shortage of physicians is projected to increase,” noted the report. “Due to the virus, some physicians will change their practice settings, opt out of patient care roles, work on a temporary basis or elect not to return to medicine, causing volatility in the physician workforce and contributing to physician shortages. However, the great majority of physicians will not leave medicine as a result of COVID-19 health risks, but may be more likely to leave for economic reasons.” 

Least stressed and most happy

Maybe you’re simply looking for a medical specialty that will allow you to live your happiest life. Well, according to the Medscape Physician Lifestyle and Happiness Report 2020, some of the specialists who reported the highest levels of happiness outside of work include pediatrics, orthopedics, and general surgery. Here are the top five, ranked by percentage of physicians responding to the survey question:

  • Rheumatology; General Surgery

  • Public Health & Preventive Medicine; Allergy & Immunology

  • Orthopedics; Urology; Ophthalmology

  • Pediatrics

  • Dermatology

On the other side of the coin, if happiness feels like a hard thing to quantify, you may be looking for the least stressful specialty. According to data compiled by the AMA, based on a survey that included responses from more than 15,000 physicians across 29 specialties, some specialists are far less likely to burn out than others. Below are the top five medical specialties least likely to burn out, according to the AMA: 

  • Plastic surgery: burnout rate of 23%

  • Dermatology: burnout rate of 32%

  • Pathology: burnout rate of 32%

  • Ophthalmology: burnout rate of 33%

  • Orthopedics: burnout rate of 34%

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