Top 5 Happiest and Unhappiest Doctor Specialties

In this blog, we’re going to talk about the happiest and unhappiest Doctor Specialties. Over the last few years, the global pandemic has highlighted many long-standing medical issues. With all of this negativity, you might think that medicine is a dying career or that all physicians are burned out and miserable. Not so fast.

Many physicians still lead happy and fulfilling lives and love their jobs. Let’s talk about physician happiness and what you can do to enjoy a fulfilling career as a future doctor. Dr. Jubbal, with Despite what the media might have you believe, the data suggests that most physicians are actually pretty happy to see the happiest and unhappiest patients.

Happiest and Unhappiest Specialties

Approximately 60% of physicians report feeling happy outside of work, and 73% say they would choose medicine again. Although this shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to address the issues within medicine and medical education, the situation is not as grim as some people make it out to be.

According to Medscape’s 2020 Physician Lifestyle and Happiness by Happiest and Unhappiest Report, the specialties with the greatest proportion of happy physicians were rheumatology at number one, followed by general surgery, public health & preventive medicine, allergy & immunology, and orthopedics.

The bottom five were neurology, critical care, internal medicine, gastroenterology, and endocrinology. In 2019, the top 5 happiest specialties were rheumatology, followed by otolaryngology, endocrinology, pediatrics, and general surgery; the bottom five were neurology, infectious disease, cardiology, pathology, and oncology. Even though rheumatology is still at the top and neurology is still at the bottom, there isn’t much overlap between the two years. Despite being a top-five specialty in 2019, endocrinology found itself in the bottom five on that same list in 2020.

Although significant year-to-year changes are possible,  it’s more likely that these are limitations of the study, which uses survey data and self-reporting. So if specialty choice is not a reliable factor for the happiest and unhappiest.

What Actually Influences Physician Happiness? Relationships happiest and unhappiest

To start, many people are drawn to medicine out of a desire to help others. It should come as no surprise, then, that relationships play an important role in physician happiness. According to research, approximately 27% of physicians report patient gratitude and relationships as the most rewarding parts of their job, and 23% report knowing that they’re making the world a better place as the most rewarding part.

Also, a study done in 2022 found that happy doctors have strong relationships with their patients and can see the results of their work.

As a doctor, you have the ability to significantly improve the quality of life for your patients. Not only is this often very satisfying, but it also gives you a sense of purpose, which is hard to find. When you feel like you’re contributing to a greater good, you’re more likely to enjoy your work and be more resilient to setbacks and difficult times.

In addition to relationships with patients, relationships with peers and colleagues have also been shown to be an important factor when it comes to physician happiness. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, connection and belonging are universal human needs—and doctors are no exception, as are the happiest and unhappiest. Having a sense of community, connection, and belonging as a physician is key to having a happy career.

Compensation by Happiest and Unhappiest Specialties

Extrinsic factors like money still play a role in happiness, even though things like purpose and meaning are very important. Approximately 10% of physicians report making good money at a job that they like as the most rewarding part of their job, and 28% report insufficient compensation as a major source of burnout. According to Medscape’s Physician Compensation report, the top 5 highest-paid specialties in 2022 will be plastic surgery, orthopedics, cardiology, otolaryngology, and urology.

The bottom five were public health and preventive medicine, pediatrics, family medicine, endocrinology, and infectious disease. Your perception of your compensation is perhaps even more important than total compensation. If you feel that there is a mismatch between your work and the salary you earn, you are more likely to feel unhappy. The top five specialties with the greatest proportion of doctors that feel fairly compensated are public health and preventive medicine, oncology, plastic surgery, psychiatry, and dermatology.

Although total compensation factors into the perception of your payment being fair, it’s clear from the top 5 that how you earn your salary also plays a role. Despite being in the bottom five for total compensation,  public health and preventive medicine rank number one in terms of feeling fairly compensated.

What is Influences Physician Happiness? Which is the Work-Life Balance of the happiest and unhappiest

According to research, approximately 55% of doctors would take a salary reduction to have a better work-life balance, with the median physician willing to give up between $20,000 and $50,000 per year to achieve it. Work-life balance is influenced by various factors, including the number of hours worked and how predictable or unpredictable the work hours are, which is largely a function of being on call.

This is why specialties such as dermatology tend to rank highly in terms of work-life balance. Dermatologists typically don’t take calls and work fewer hours per week than most other physicians. That being said, other factors, such as the amount of time spent with patients versus the time spent charting and doing other administrative work, also influence physician happiness.

One exciting thing that was found is that using medical scribes can make doctors much happier. This makes sense because it reduces the amount of time physicians spend charting and gives them more time with patients, both of which are significant contributors.

Burnout by the happiest and unhappiest

In recent years, burnout has been a popular topic in medicine and can make a doctor unhappy. According to the literature, issues such as too much charting and paperwork, too many hours at work, a lack of respect, insufficient compensation, and a lack of autonomy are significant sources of burnout.

The top 5 specialties with the highest levels of burnout are emergency medicine, critical care,  OB/GYN, infectious disease, and family medicine. The top 5 specialties with the lowest levels of burnout are public health and preventive medicine,  dermatology, pathology, oncology, and orthopedics. It should be noted, however, that burnout is an issue that affects every specialty.

Although these are the specialties with the highest rates of burnout, you’re likely to find physicians who are burned out no matter what specialty you’re looking at. In the same way, there are sure to be doctors in every specialty who love and enjoy their work and are the happiest and unhappiest. Regardless, mitigating burnout is essential to maintaining happiness as a physician.

How Should This Data Influence Your Choice of  Specialty? Happiest and unhappiest

Should everyone go into dermatology or preventive medicine? Of course not. At the end of the day, there are multiple factors that you should consider when choosing your specialty. If you’re on the fence, knowing which specialties tend to be the happiest on average may help sway your decision; however,  it should not be a primary consideration. Instead of looking at other people’s happiness,  it’s much more important to examine your own.

Find a specialty that you enjoy, and that speaks to your strengths instead of just choosing the one that makes you feel the happiest. People often don’t consider two factors with these lists: sampling and self-selection biases, happiest and unhappiest. This data represents only a very small sample of the larger doctor population and may not be entirely representative.

And just because 60% of general surgeons in that sample report were happy doesn’t mean that 60% of doctors would be happy becoming general surgeons. These are doctors who have already chosen their specialties. It’s a subtle but important distinction between the happiest and unhappiest.

In addition, the happiest and unhappiest lifestyle factors, such as compensation, hours worked,  and administrative burden is highly variable. It’s possible to carve out your own niche and create the lifestyle you want, no matter what specialty you choose. As a plastic surgeon, Dr. Goldman said in his interview on the Kevin Jubbal, M.D. YouTube channel, “What you do with your specialty is more  important than what specialty you choose.” That being said, don’t fall into the trap I’ve seen many succumb to.

I’ve come across dozens of residents and even attending physicians who wanted to do a different specialty, like dermatology or plastic surgery, but ultimately had to compromise on something less competitive because they weren’t strong enough for the specialty they truly desired.

Thank you all so much for reading the article. Please leave a comment if you enjoyed this article.

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