An interesting recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine asks that doctors be explicit about what they will support and what they won’t. In particular, would we agree to pay cuts? The essay points out that, at least early in the process, drug companies, insurance companies, device manufacturers, and hospitals all agreed to some limitation on their income. (If they still would, of course, is another question.) But doctors have made no such pledge. In fact, as a group, we’ve demanded more of the healthcare pie. Is that fair?
I don’t think it is fair. To me, the biggest problem with physician salaries is that they are so spread out from lowest to highest in a manner that doesn’t really reflect training or expertise — the variance primarily reflects custom. My own family’s experience with medicine spans well over a century, with my grandfather graduating from medical school in 1903 and my father in 1944. Some doctors have always made more money than other doctors, either from being busier or from getting more training. Surgeons and other doctors who do procedures have always made more than those who don’t do these things, but the huge variance in physician salaries we have seen emerge in the past several decades is a new phenomenon. To me it parallels the huge (and recent) disparities we see between what a CEO gets paid and what an the average employee gets paid. Things have gotten out of balance.
If you want to learn more about how medical practice, including how it is paid for, emerged in the last century, there is no better book about it than The Social Transformation of American Medicine, by Paul Starr. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. And if you’re wondering: yes, I’d give up some salary to get healthcare reform, so long as everybody else would, too. It’s only fair.