It's hard to feel sorry for America's family doctors. Any job that averages $179,000 per year and lets you be your own boss is a job most folks wouldn't turn down. With the effort to rein in health-care costs increasingly framed as an unhappy trade-off in which insurers either slash benefits or raise premiums, some in Washington are beginning to ask a question long considered off-limits: Do we simply pay doctors too much?
The truth is, we pay them all wrong.
Doctors themselves could tell you that — particularly primary-care providers (PCPs), the foot soldiers of the U.S. medical system. New doctors graduate from medical school lugging up to $200,000 in student loans. Paying that off takes a big bite out of even a low-six-figure salary. Add to that the high costs, long days and billing headaches involved in running a practice, and it's no wonder so many family docs are trading up to specialties like orthopedics, where the pay can be three times as great and the hours a whole lot shorter. Only 3 out of 10 doctors in the U.S. now are PCPs, compared with 5 out of 10 elsewhere in the world. Those family physicians who remain find themselves in a constant money chase, meeting their monthly nut with the help of the revenue they make by prescribing tests — X-rays, CT scans, EKGs — that may or may not be strictly necessary but generate a lot of separate billing.