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Among Physicians, White Men Make the Big Bucks

New research finds racial and gender disparities in the amount of money doctors earn.

By Tom Jacobs


The Doctor, by Luke Fildes. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Although many Donald Trump supporters may beg to differ, there are still huge benefits to being a white man in today’s America. Especially if you happen to be a medical doctor.

A new study of physicians’ incomes finds white males earn substantially more than their black counterparts, even after adjusting for a variety of factors — including their specialty.

In contrast, black and white female physicians earn, on average, close to the same amount. But that small victory for equality comes with an enormous catch: Both tend to make far less than their male counterparts.

Unless possessing a certain appendage somehow gives you magical healing powers, something here is seriously messed up.

These “puzzling” findings are presented in the BMJ by a research team led by Harvard Medical School’s Anupam Jena. The research team came to its conclusion by analyzing data from two national surveys.

The study found that 30.9 percent of white male physicians made more than $250,00 annually, compared to 18.3 percent of black males.

The first was the 2000–13 American Community Survey, a large, nationally representative poll conducted by the Census Bureau. It included a large number of practicing physicians: 43,213 white men, 1,698 black men, 15,164 white women, and 1,252 black women.

Jena and his team restricted their analysis to doctors ages 35 and up, and focused on doctors’ personal earnings from employment and business income.

The researchers found the mean annual income was highest among white male physicians ($253,042), followed by black males ($188,230), white females ($163,234), and black females ($152,784).

The other set of figures came from the three physician surveys (conducted in 2000–01, 2004–05, and 2008) administered by the Center for Studying Health System Change. While the number of doctors surveyed by the Center for Studying Health System Change was smaller, the results were very similar.

It found, for example, that 30.9 percent of white male physicians made more than $250,00 annually, compared to 18.3 percent of black males, 9.6 percent of white females, and 7.3 percent of black females.

When those numbers were adjusted to take into account the doctors’ ages and the amount of time they spent on the job, the racial and gender pay disparities remained large. Indeed, “these income differences remained after adjustment for physician specialty, hours worked, practice characteristics, insurance mix, and geography,” the researchers conclude.

For their part, Jena and his colleagues can find no obvious explanation for these results.

“Black male physicians are more likely to work in primary care, and to treat Medicaid patients, compared with white male physicians, both of which are associated with lower earnings,” they report. “Adjustment for these and other practice characteristics, however, did not eliminate — or even substantially reduce — the estimated differences in earnings.”

They suggest further research should look into such possibilities as “disparities in job opportunities,” “lower bargaining power in salary negotiations with employers,” and “discrimination by employers or patients.”

For many people, of course, being a physician isn’t primarily about money. Healing people can be a noble calling; there is certainly honor in wearing the white coat.

But if you want to make the big bucks, it’ll help if the garment matches your skin tone.