Physicians' concerns with the health care system focus on having less time with their patients and needing to work harder to maintain incomes. We sought to determine whether physicians are working longer hours and whether their incomes are declining.
Using survey data, we conducted a retrospective analysis of physician inputs, outputs, efficiency, and incomes for generalists, general internists, general surgeons, pediatricians, and obstetrician-gynecologists from 1987 to 1998.
Physician inputs (as measured by the average hours worked in professional activities) showed little absolute change across specialties over time. Outputs (as measured by the total number of patient visits per week) decreased between 9% and 28%, depending on the specialty. Efficiency (the proportion of time spent in direct patient care and the amount of time spent during a typical office visit) remained stable over the time examined. Consumer price index inflation-adjusted annual incomes increased considerably over the time period examined (42% for general internists, 28% for pediatricians, 13% for generalists, and 8% for general surgeons); only obstetricians-gynecologists showed a net loss of annual income when adjusting for inflation (a 6% loss).
Our findings do not confirm the prevailing concern that physicians are working harder or longer or that their incomes are declining, but they offer an explanation of how physicians are maintaining incomes without increasing work inputs. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the health care system among physicians; exploration of perceptual reasons for that dissatisfaction may outline a course of action needed to resolve it.