Inpatient Practice Medical Economics Outpatient Practice

U.S. Physicians Are Working Fewer Hours Per Week

A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that the number of hours physicians work per week has fallen significantly over the past 20 years. The data was derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey that included 87,297 monthly surveys of physicians between 2001 and 2021. During this 20-year period, the average number of hours worked per week has steadily fallen.

In the study, respondents were asked how many total hours they worked at all jobs during the previous week. The average weekly work hours from 2001 – 2003 were compared to average weekly work hours from 2019 – 2021. Overall, the average physician worked 52.6 hours per week in 2001 – 2003 and this number dropped to 48.6 hours per week in 2019 – 2021. When only physicians working full-time were included, the work hours decreased from 55.6 hours per week in 2001 – 2003 to 51.1 hours per week in 2019 – 2021.

There has been a change in work hours by physician age. In the time period 2001 – 2003, the youngest physicians (age 35 – 44) worked the most hours per week, followed by middle aged physicians (age 45 – 54), and then older physicians (age 55 – 64). In the more recent time period of 2019 – 2021, the opposite was true – older physicians (age 55 – 64) worked the more hours per week than younger physicians.

On average, male physicians currently work more hours per week (49.7 hours) than female physicians (46.8 hours). However, this gap has been narrowing with a gender difference of 5.3 hours per week in 2001 – 2003 versus a gender difference of 2.9 hours per week in 2019 – 2021. Differences in the percentage of women in different specialties may be responsible for some of the gender difference in hours worked per week. Other physician demographic variables did not differ significantly in the current number of hours worked per week including race, country of origin, urban vs. rural, and dual household earners versus single household earners.

The 2023 Medscape Physician Compensation Report surveyed 10,011 physicians between October 7, 2022 and January 17, 2023. The report found that there is substantial variation in physician work hours among different specialties. Hospital-based specialties that tend to involve patient care at night and on weekends work the most hours per week including critical care, general surgery, cardiology, and nephrology. On the other hand, outpatient specialties that generally do not require seeing patients at night or on weekends had the lowest work hours per week including allergy, dermatology, and ophthalmology. Emergency medicine also had a low number of hours worked per week, owing to the shift work nature of the specialty.

A problem with the Medscape survey is that all of the information is self-reported and thus susceptible to either over-estimation or under-estimation. Furthermore, the survey is voluntary and the physicians who choose to report data may not be truly representative of the population of physicians as a whole. Nevertheless, the recent Medscape data for work hours by specialty are remarkably similar to a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (during the 2nd quarter of 2020), the average number of hours physicians worked per week fell as elective procedures were canceled. However, weekly work hours quickly rebounded by the 3rd quarter of 2020 as shown in the graph below derived from data from the recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Notably, over the the 24 quarters from 2016 through 2021, the overall trend has been for physician work weeks to become shorter.

Do work week hours correlate with income?

Intuitively, one might assume that specialties with longer work weeks also have higher incomes. However, the 2023 Medscape Physician Compensation Survey indicates that there is little relationship between the number of hours worked per week and the annual compensation by specialty. The graph below shows average number of hours worked per week in red and annual compensation in blue for 29 specialties.

By combining the data from the two graphs above, we can calculate the average income per work-week hour. Note that this is not same as hourly compensation – that would require dividing the income per work-week hour by the number of weeks worked per year. The Medscape Physician Compensation Survey did not report the number of work vs. vacation weeks per year by specialty so true hourly compensation cannot be determined. The graph below shows that plastic surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, dermatologists, and radiologists have the highest income per work-week hour. Infectious disease specialists, family practitioners, pediatricians, and general internists have the lowest compensation per work-week hour. Notably, family medicine, pediatrics, and general internal medicine have shorter residencies (3 years) than the other specialties.

As stated in a previous post, the data for infectious disease is particularly alarming. Physicians specializing in infectious disease have the lowest income per work week hour of all 29 specialties in the Medscape Physician Compensation Survey. In order to become board-certified in infectious disease, a physician must first complete a 3-year internal medicine residency and then complete a 2-year infectious disease fellowship. However, infectious disease specialists have both a lower total annual income and a lower income per work week hour than general internists. The implication is that an infectious disease specialist is financially penalized for doing a 2-year fellowship after internal medicine residency. As a result, many infectious disease specialists are either supplementing their income by working part-time as hospitalists or are leaving the specialty of infectious disease altogether to work as general internists or hospitalists. Because of the nature of physician billing and RVU determination, it is not possible for infectious disease specialists to increase their income by professional billing alone. There is an urgent need for U.S. hospitals to financially supplement their infectious disease specialists in order to preserve the infectious disease physician workforce.

Physicians are working fewer hours but are they happier?

The Medscape Physician Compensation Report found that 73% of physicians would choose medicine again if they were just now starting their career. However, the Medscape survey five years ago found that 77% of physicians would choose medicine again, indicating that physicians are less satisfied with their careers now than five years ago.

Undoubtably, the COVID pandemic has had an impact on physician job satisfaction. During the pandemic, many physicians retired early or left the workforce for other jobs. In 2019, there were 989,684 clinically active physicians practicing in the United States. In 2021 that number fell to 923,419, a 6.7% decrease. Hopefully, as the pandemic winds down and the practice of medicine gets back to normal, the exodus of physicians from the profession will slow.

The continued creep in paperwork and administrative tasks is a dissatisfying factor for many doctors – physicians reported spending an average of 15.5 hours per week on these chores, of which 9 hours are for electronic medical record documentation. Advances in artificial intelligence technology offers hope that the use of electronic medical records will be streamlined in the near future, giving physicians more time to engage in direct patient care. Over the past decade, there have been increasing concerns raised about the extent of physician burnout. Long work hours have been suggested to be a cause of physician burnout but the data suggests that physicians are less satisfied despite working fewer hours than in the past.

What about nurse practitioners and physician assistants?

The large number of retiring physicians coupled with reduced physician work week hours indicates that the overall supply of physician services is declining. Over the past decade, this has been offset by an increase in nurse practitioners. It is far less expensive to train a physician assistant or nurse practitioner (6 years education post-high school) compared to a physician (11 to 16 years education post-high school, depending on specialty). Many services traditionally performed by physicians can be equally or near-equally performed by PAs and NPs. However, specialized medical care and complex procedures still require the additional training and experience of physician specialists and so there is a limit to the degree that PAs and NPs can substitute for physicians.

Are the numbers good or bad?

The reduction in physician work hours is both good and bad. It indicates an improvement in a profession that has historically been seen as arduously time-consuming. But it also implies reduced availability of physician services to the general population. In the future, reduction in administrative and paperwork time coupled with strategic utilization of NPs and PAs could allow physicians to enjoy a good lifestyle while still ensuring that Americans have access to the best possible healthcare.

May 2, 2023

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital