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Why Doctors Complain: A History Of Physician Income

Wed, 09/05/2012 - 6:20am
Richard Patterson, M.D.

We’re not going for sympathy here. Doctors as a whole enjoy less sympathy than many other professional groups (members of Congress enjoy the least, I would think), and that’s probably appropriate. They have high incomes and many prerogatives and rank highly in esteem polls as individuals, if not as a group. It’s not where they are that is causing the grieving, it is where they are coming from.

Let’s deal with the elephant: money. We can begin there because it is so obvious.

While a comprehensive history of physician income is beyond the reach of this blog, it is fair to say that from the early to mid-twentieth century, being a doctor meant earning a solidly middle class income. There were disparities, then as now, between the uptown, high society specialist and the rural, payment-in-kind GP, but all were at least comfortable, and the more entrepreneurial built their own hospitals and/or manufactured their own patent medicines. Their fees were a matter of personal discretion and could vary without constraint, except for the patient’s ability to pay.

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