NPR's Sob Story for Struggling Doctors

NPR did a piece this morning on doctors' pay that leaves you wondering why they get taxpayers dollars. The basic point was that doctors, especially primary care physicians, are struggling. The news hook was a new survey that showed that doctors' net (after malpractice) pay is not keeping pace with inflation.

The survey showed that average net compensation for all physicians in 2003 was just over $220,000 a year (in 2006 dollars). This is down by 7.1 percent (adjusted for inflation) from the 1995 level. Of course there are big differences by specialty. (The decline in pay is partly explained by a 4.1 percent shortening of the average workweek.) While the survey found that surgeons average almost $300,000 a year, primary care physicians average just $160,000 a year.

The NPR story chose to focus on the latter, highlighting the difficulties of making ends meet. However, instead of finding a typical primary care physician, NPR found a doctor who claims to be making just $50,000 a year, less than one third of the average.

The doctor in the story sounded like an impressive person. According to the piece, she specialized in caring for pregnant women in the inner city. It sounds like hard work for very modest pay. According to the piece, she is being forced to change jobs (taking a position at Georgetown University) because she still has $300,000 in loans from medical school hanging over her head.

This is a good human interest story, but it has nothing to do with the pay of doctors. Why on earth would NPR talk to a primary care physician, who apparently earns less than one-third the average for primary care physicians, to find out about the financial difficulties facing primary care physicians? This would be like talking to an autoworker getting $7.00 an hour to find out about the situation facing the typical UAW autoworker who earns close to $20 an hour. Competent reporters do not do this.

The gist of this story was that we should be paying doctors more. If doctors get more, the custodian getting $7.00 an hour gets less. That's the way the economy works, one person's income is another person's cost. Maybe there is a case to be made that the average physician can't make ends meet on $220,000 a year, and the government should intervene to raise their wages. But that case must be made based on the situation of the typical doctor, not some hardworking dedicated physician who works for one-third of the average wage.

--Dean Baker

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