Radiologist incomes rise despite slower job growth

September 1, 2009

The crazy days of offering sky-high incomes to hire radiologists have ended, but the effects of the mid-2000s boom can still be seen in compensation levels near the top of the scale among all medical practitioners.

The crazy days of offering sky-high incomes to hire radiologists have ended, but the effects of the mid-2000s boom can still be seen in compensation levels near the top of the scale among all medical practitioners.

The median compensation for diagnostic radiologists in 2008 was $476,275, up 2.5% from the previous year, according to the annual Medical Group Management compensation and production survey. The figure reflects the responses of 1641 radiologists who participated in MGMA's online survey. MGMA is a nonprofit association of healthcare administrators.

While median income for radiologists increased, other data suggest that demand may be flattening out. The Merrit Hawkins placement firm reported that requests for radiology-related searches have declined steadily since 2005, when the company conducted 237 such searches. Only 64 searches were contracted from April 2008 to March 2009, as radiology slipped to 15th place among medical specialties on the firm's lists of most requested placements.

Radiologists who want a new job can still easily find one, said Sam Karam, Merrit Hawkins vice president of marketing, but offers are different than what was common when the market peaked four years ago. At that time, some radiologists were moving straight from a residency program to $500,000-a-year positions. Recruits were promised up to 20 weeks of vacation and were exempted from call.

Implementation of the federal Deficit Reduction Act in January 2007 changed all that, Karam said. Before the DRA, radiologists were expected to read about 18,000 studies per year. After implementation, the standard rose to 23,000 studies.

Compensation levels reported by the MGMA may be considered indicative of radiologists midstream in their careers. Radiologists who responded to the MGMA survey typically had practiced for 13 years. According to MGMA, 945 were diagnostic radiologists, 409 were interventional radiologists, and 35 practiced nuclear medicine.

Among 20 physician categories, only invasive cardiologists earned more money than radiologists in 2008. The median compensation for the cardiologists was $482,858.

Overall, the median rate for all specialists was $399,738. At the bottom, family practitioners who did not offer obstetrical services generated median compensation of $186,044.

Looking at medical imaging specifically, the median compensation levels for diagnostic radiologists, interventional radiologists, and nuclear medicine specialists were $465,000, $544,811, and $497,655 respectively.

The top 10% of practitioners in the three categories earned $700,720, $695,092, and $733,233 respectively. For the lower 25%, diagnostic radiologists, interventional radiologists, and nuclear medicine specialists earned $365,219, $447,969, and $401,229 respectively.

Geographically, the median compensation for diagnostic radiologists varied less than 9% among four U.S. regions. Radiologists in the South generated a median $465,000, compared with $464,429 in the Midwest, $445,000 in the West, and $433,392 in the East.

According to the MGMA, the best paying jobs for diagnostic radiologists are in medium-sized cities. The median compensation in cities with populations from 50,000 to 250,000 was $494,558 compared with $465,000 for cities with 250,001 to one million residents and $445,085 for cities with more than a million residents. For regions with fewer than 50,000 residents, diagnostic radiologists earned a median of $469,333.

Gender affected earning power. Women radiologists earned a median $402,122, about 14.9% less than the $472,593 median for men.

Partnership in a group practice pays for diagnostic radiologists. The median compensation for nonpartners in 2008 was $388,003, about 22% less than the $494,205 earned by partners.

How all these statistics square with practice reality is hard to determine. The MGMA survey sample was not randomized and its voluntary nature was subject to statistical selection bias.

And the income levels reported from the MGMA survey were higher than other unscientific surveys from other organizations. Locumtenens.com reported in its 2008 annual survey that diagnostic radiologists earned an average of $367,907. The average income of interventional radiologists was $440,588.

According to swz.salary.com, an online salary reporting service, the median radiologist salary in 2008 was $361,538.

Salary data from Merritt Hawkins & Associates indicate that jobs for general radiologists in the midstream of their careers will typically pay about $450,000.

The 80-physician University Radiologist Group in New Brunswick, NJ, is adjusting to the effects of declining payment rates, higher taxes, and increasing regulations, said Dr. Robert Epstein, president. It looks to women's imaging, emergency imaging, interventional radiology, and teleradiology to support its growth strategy.

“Rate cuts mean doing more with less, Epstein admitted. “Price pressure necessitates [that we] read more studies per hour and make compromises on equipment.”