Medical students who choose primary care lose millions in income

Will medical school loan forgiveness be enough to convince prospective doctors to forsake specialty practice as a career?

I’ve argued previously that it may help a little, but it’s unlikely to change the overall trend away from primary care.

A recent article from Health Affairs compares lifetime earnings from a cardiologist versus a primary care physician. The difference is stark:

Their calculations showed that cardiologists earn a career average of more than $5 million, compared with $2.5 million for primary care physicians, $1.7 million for business school graduates, $846,735 for physician assistants and $340,629 for college graduates, according to the paper.

To make up the difference, “primary care doctors would have to receive a $1 million lump-sum payment or have an annual income boost of $100,000.”

Some argue that, compared to non-physicians, primary care doctors should have nothing to complain about. Consider NPR’s Shots, for instance, which framed the piece with the somewhat obnoxious title, “Primary Care Docs Earn Less Than Specialists, But More Than We Do.”

But that’s an irrelevant argument.  Medical students are not looking at physician assistant salaries or MBA earnings upon graduating. They’re looking at the $2.5 million difference between a cardiologist and primary care doctor.  And, in many cases, moreso considering cardiology isn’t even the highest paying physician field.

Although money isn’t everything, a disparity that wide is more than enough to sway more than a few into a more lucrative specialty career.

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