The amount of money doctors make is often directly proportional to the specialty they practice and where they practice it. In many industrialized regions of the world, entrepreneurial drive, raw talent and charisma might also be factors to consider when determining how doctors make so much money. For many doctors, their pay must also account for the student loans that paid for medical school, the responsibility being assumed for life after life on a daily basis, and the rising cost of malpractice insurance.
The Price of Education
Although the price of medical school can vary significantly by country, it can be quite expensive. Most doctors don’t get educated on scholarships alone, so many will need to pay a significant amount of money back in student loans. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the average cost of medical school in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century, plus living expenses, is approximately $140,000 US Dollars (USD) for a public school and $225,000 USD for private. Outside of the US, costs are often much lower.
Graduates from US public medical colleges in 2003 had a median debt of $100,000 USD, according to an Association of American Medical Colleges study, while private school graduates owed $135,000 USD. The study estimated that someone with $150,000 USD debt at 2.8% interest would be paying a $1,761 USD monthly repayment by the end of their residency.
Specialists may make more money in the long run than general practitioners do, but some specialties like anesthesiology and surgery can require as many as seven years of additional training prior to becoming board-certified. Many specialists have completed 10 or more years of post-graduate training. Though the median salary for an anesthesiologist with a few years of experience is greater than $320,000 USD, it's also likely he or she put more than 15 years into school, worked grueling hours as a resident, and accrued substantial student loans.
Doing a Difficult Job
One of the main reasons that doctors are paid as well as they are is because their services are absolutely essential. They may work long, very busy days and treat a range of people with different needs. Sometimes, a doctor's work forces him or her to make life-or-death decisions, and he or she may need to take immediate action in unexpected circumstances. While a general practitioner might not face the same intense pressure as an emergency room doctor, he or she may have to recognize and diagnose serious health problems, calm and reassure concerned patients, explain a disease or condition when it is diagnosed, and handle any unexpected problems that arise during the day. It can be a difficult and stressful job, and a mistake could cost a patient his or her life.
The respect afforded doctors in many nations, and the life-or-death decisions they regularly face, is perhaps another key reason that doctors make as much money as they do. A Harris poll in 2006 of more than 1,000 US respondents to find out which of 23 professions were considered most respected had doctors — and nurses and scientists — ranking at "very great" levels of prestige. Only firefighters ranked higher, at a median annual salary in 2010 of $45,250 USD, or $21.76 USD per hour.
Another reason doctors make so much money in some countries is to compensate for the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance. Many doctors in the United States complain of paying as much as a third of their salaries for coverage. This can make a serious dent in take-home pay.
In addition, how much a doctor makes can be affected by insurance reimbursement. In the US, Medicare and other insurers are reducing the amount of money that they pay doctors for their services, and they are expected to continue to do so. As the cost of operating a private practice increases, the doctor's salary may go down as he or she tries to balance providing quality care with covering all of his or her expenses.
How Much Do Doctors Really Make?
By many standards, doctors are well-paid professionals. The median wage for American doctors and surgeons in 2010, according to the US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $80 USD an hour, or $166,400 USD a year. The agency predicted a 24% growth in the field by 2020, considered faster than average.
Only two countries pay specialists better, according to salary median data published from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in 2004, when adjusted to account for the differing standards of living in different countries. These are the Netherlands and Australia, which both offer residents in 2011 some form of socialized health care. That year, American specialists made a median annual salary of $230,000 USD and its general practitioners made a median of $161,000 USD.
Doctors in other countries don't always make so much money. The CRS data, covering 21 western nations, showed that countries like Mexico, Poland, and Hungary have doctors making a median annual salary of no more than $27,000 USD. Those doctors wouldn't ask why doctors make so much money.
Still, on a global scale, the CRS analysis revealed that most doctors are by no means suffering on the revenue side. In 2004, specialists worldwide averaged salaries of $113,000 USD and general practitioners made $83,000 USD. By contrast, nurses globally made an average of $33,000 USD in that year.