Overheard on CNN.com: Broke doctors, rich doctors? Behind the stethoscope
Some medical practices are struggling to fund payrolls in this difficult economic climate. Readers shared their explanations.
January 5th, 2012
07:51 PM ET

Overheard on CNN.com: Broke doctors, rich doctors? Behind the stethoscope

Editor's note: This post is part of the Overheard on CNN.com series, a regular feature that examines interesting comments and thought-provoking conversations posted by the community.

We've seen quite a bit of reaction to a CNNMoney story on doctors going broke due to reasons including insurance changes, the economy and business acumen. Commenters claiming to be doctors and medical staffers (and their family, too) wrote in to share why people should appreciate their circumstances. Many consumers also responded with their own thoughts.

Doctors going broke

The following comments were selected to show perspectives from beyond the sea-foam-green curtain.

Higher costs, sicker patients

One commenter cited many external factors that are creating financial stress for doctors.

JarheadTribe: "Two big problems: There are huge advancements in medicine every year, with understandably huge costs associated with them. The companies that make these advancements only do so because they hope to profit from them. No profit = no research = no advancement in medicines or technology. But, unlike any other industry in the U.S. (or even the world), everyone expects to get everything in medicine regardless of their ability to afford it. Can't walk into a BMW dealership and ask for the 2012 750Li if you don't have the money. But you can certainly come into the hospital with a massive lung cancer wrapped around your aorta and expect to be admitted to the ICU, see the hospitalist, the intensivist, the cardiologist, the oncologist, the social worker, the cardiothoracic surgeon, the vascular surgeon, receive large amounts of pain medicines, food, breathing treatments, BP meds, cardiac meds, numerous CT scans, angiograms, echocardiograms, duplex, push for surgery, radiation and long courses of the latest four-drug combination of chemotherapy, months of post-operative care, rehab, meds, food, follow-up doctor visits, wound care, etc. etc. etc. All of this, even if you have never worked a day in your life or paid a penny into the system. And guess what? We can't deny you any of this simply because you don't have the means to pay for it. You can't even get a cup of coffee at a restaurant if you don't have the means to pay for it!

"Second problem: People are living much longer than they ever have before. I see 90-year-old skeletons brought into the hospital for the 10th time in two months, with the family asking for everything to be done to keep 'grandpa' alive, even though he hasn't been able to talk, eat, drink, pee, poop, see by himself for months. He lies in bed and moans all day long, doesn't recognize anyone because of advanced dementia, has a tube for feeding, wears a diaper, has massive skin breakdown etc. etc. etc. Again, nowhere else are you expected to continue providing very, very expensive care even in absolutely futile cases when people cannot afford to pay for it. In the U.S., it is expected. None of this care is free, nor will it ever be. Someone is going to have to pay for it. We don't have endless resources or money."

A well-deserved life

One commenter said they were proud to be a doctor and defended their compensation.

emergentmd: "Doctors still make a lot of money. We worked hard for it. We deserve to drive nice cars, live in nice homes, take big vacations. I live in a million-dollar home I built, have a BMW, put my kids in private school. I worked hard for this, I spent countless time training, sacrificing my best years of my life. I now work 30 hours a week, have a salary in the top 1/2%. I get to spend time with my kids, take them out to eat, spoil my nieces/nephews. Thats right. I do not apologize for my life because I worked hard to get here. There's a lot of jealousy in this thread. I am sorry that most on here did not choose to spend time alone studying and working 120 hours a week in residency. You chose to drop out of high school or major in English.

"I graduated with an engineering degree, and was offered $70,000 out of college. I chose to go back to school/residency for another eight years, making very little. By my calculations, eight years x 70,000 is $560,000. So I gave up over half a million dollars, and eight years of my 20s. So yes. I deserve to live the easy, happy, upper-class life. I deserve my million-dollar home, my kids deserve their $15,000 private day care, I deserve two new BMWs in my garage, my wife deserves to stay home and raise our kids. I am not shy about this. I traded the best years of my life so my family would not have to struggle. No apologies here."

Long hours and reimbursement woes

Many doctors noted the long hours and years spent in training, as well as difficulties getting reimbursed by insurance companies. Several people complained that Medicare was undercompensating doctors for treatment.

kcool: "Where to even begin to address the idiotic statements made by people who don’t know what a doctor endures and the stereotypes that persist. My wife is a primary care physician. She has only been practicing for 2.5 years post-residency. She does not bring home six figures like some of you think. Some people are posting comments indicating we have club memberships, drive expensive cars, etc. How about a 6-year-old Accord? Expensive? I am currently unemployed and we’ve had to refinance our house to make the mortgage payments. Million+ dollar home? Not hardly. About a quarter of that. I’ve been on the unemployment line since April. I get interviews but no offers. We lost a significant portion of our income when I lost my job. We’ve burned through savings just paying the bills – now we are dipping into our 401k. We are definitely in the 99%!

"Some people are comparing a vet to a doctor. Not even close. Yes, they both have years of education under their belt, have to do continuing education to stay licensed, and have insurance and business overhead to pay for. Vets don’t have the market regulation imposed by insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid. I was talking to a chiropractor friend who gets reimbursed by the state of Minnesota for Medicare/Medicaid patient visits. His reimbursement – $1.56. Time in the room – 10 minutes. That’s $9.36 per hour to cover rent, utilities, insurance, equipment, student loans, staff paychecks, and somewhere in there he’d like to take some pay home as well. I know private physicians who don’t take insurance. They are cash-only and are much happier. Their patients are much happier, too. Nobody has to deal with insurance. His per-visit price is lower than my wife can charge because of the insurance billing overhead. Her practice has at least three people who do nothing but file insurance claims – three more salaries to come out of the low reimbursement rates from insurance. Oh, and eight-hour days/five days a week. What a joke! She works minimum 10-hour days (five days a week) and if she’s on call that’s a 24-hour shift (once per week plus a day every third weekend). She doesn’t get overtime pay for putting in extra hours. Why so many hours? That many sick people? In some cases, yes. In other cases, she has to sit around waiting on patients who arrive late, expect to be seen immediately when they do arrive and bring every ailment they can think of crammed into one visit. A 15-minute slot, pushed back because they were late, then extended to 30-45 minutes because they cram too much into one visit pushes everyone else back. That’s why you get to wait in the waiting room for long periods past your appointment time. Not because the doctor is screwing around – because patients don’t come on time and cram too much into one visit. Oh, and stacking two or three deep on a schedule? People make an appointment and don’t show! So, they are supposed to just sit around and do nothing? Fifty percent of her appointments are no-shows.

"My wife is on salary, so those weeks where she is working 70 hours a week isn’t worth it. She has more medical school loans than most houses cost in the U.S. – and it’s on a 10-year note, not 30. She has insurance that costs more than someone on minimum wage earns per month. She isn’t bringing home six figures, but she is the gatekeeper to the system. As primary care physician – and those are becoming a rare breed – under Obamacare, she is the entry point for patients to see a specialist. Without her, you get nowhere. Medical school graduates aren’t going into primary care because they can’t afford to. So, when all you who are whining about not having access to health care, remember this – there is a difference between access to health care and availability of health care."

No sympathy

We heard from a few readers who said they had worked with doctors and felt that at least some of the "rich doctor" stereotypes are true. The following poster said in another comment that they are a CEO.

ospreyisland: "Having worked in the medical profession for over 40 years, I can say I have absolutely no sympathy for physicians. The vast majority of those that are in a precarious financial situation is due to financial ineptitude. For years they have taken kick-backs from drug reps, medical equipment companies, and corporate conglomerates. They have become acclimated to six- and seven-figure incomes, preferential political treatment because of the financial contributions of the AMA to our ethical members of Congress, and the general perception that they are in an elitist strata relative to the rest of society. Frankly, the majority are egomaniacal, marginally competent, money grubbing dregs that have financially raped patients for years. Can you tell I have considerable sympathy for physicians?"

Medical student's perspective

We heard from many commenters talking about the grueling medical school regimen that all doctors must go through, and one comment from a student touched a nerve (no pun intended) with many others reading the forum.

Jason Feldman: "I'm a third year medical student in Arizona. Let me give you some figures:

"When I graduate my debt load will be close to $400,000. After interest and residency it will be closer to $500k+. The New Health Care Law requires us to get our student loans from the government now that charge higher than market interest rates. E.g. 10% of my loans are interest free, then about half of what is left is around 6.8% and the next half is around 7.5%. So when I am out and all is said and done, if I wanted to pay my loans off in 10 years that would amount to a $5,300 a month payment. Now take the average family doctor and say he makes $160k a year/$13k a month. Take out our 40% in tax (federal + state + Social Security + Medicaid) or more and we get $8,000 a month. Now take out the loans and we have $3,700 take-home essentially, equivalent to maybe a $60,000 a year job, which is not bad by all means ... Also factor in that we're trying to catch up on retirement since for the 10-12 years we're in school we put nothing in. In short, the cost of attending medical school now between lost income, benefits, and tuition is just under a million dollars. Oh, and all the interest we pay is not tax deductible. Am I complaining? No. I chose my career and I love what I do. But for everyone who thinks we're greedy and charge too much and live these lavish lifestyles, I think they're forgetting the eight years we spent in school, the five years we worked as residents for 80-120 hours a week and got paid $40,000 or $50,000 (roughly like 7 bucks an hour)."

Stitching it all together

We heard from a lot of folks saying that doctors have to take on a huge amount of risk, and who were frustrated with the insurance companies.

DTM03: "I am a surgeon. For those of you who think I make too much money, I would gladly give back my 20s for my modestly increased income. I have $170,000 in debt from medical school, I spent my 20s and early 30s in surgical residency working 100+ hours per week, I've missed every major holiday in my family to take care of the sickest patients in the greatest need. I love it. What I have never appreciated is how many people think that my sacrifices or skills do not deserve some level of compensation. I sometimes wonder if the general public realizes what it takes to become a physician. It is competitive and cutthroat. While we work through the training aspect of it, we have bankers, lawyers, and insurers lining up to see what they can take from us. I do wonder whether a nationalized health plan would be better than this current state. Your insurance company hates you. They want you to live a nice long, healthy life and die of a massive heart attack in your sleep. They certainly don't want you to get cancer, diabetes, or use any of the resources you've paid for."

That's my 12-year-old Chevy

Lots of the medically oriented commenters said they love what they do, but there are a lot of problems and hassles to deal with, and not everyone is superwealthy.

RationalDoc: "I am a board-certified internal medicine doctor in solo practice. I drive a 12-year-old Chevy. My next door neighbors are a fireman and a high school teacher. I struggle to pay my staff. But what I want people to know is that the governmnet is not the devil in this deal. I fight every day with Humana, Anthem, United Healthcare, etc. These Wall-Street-investor-driven for-profit companies have made practicing medicine miserable. Medicare is easy to work with by comparison. For whatever faults Medicare has, at least its heart is in the right place, and I can't say that about these for-profit companies who turn down coverage and make me fight on behalf of my patient to get a CT scan approved, all because they are trying to meet the high expectations of their shareholders. Look at your own 401(k). If you have shares in any for-profit health insurance companies, then YOU, not President Obama, are the problem."

Destination: Doctor

We did hear from a few commenters who said they were skeptical of the stories from the medical side of things. Some said doctors come to the United States to get more money.

Terry Chris: "This is a propaganda piece to elicit sympathy for doctors. American doctors are never unemployed and the highest-paid in the world. This is why America has so many foreign docs. The money is large and full-employment. I have four doctors in my family: two on my side and two on my wife's side. They are all rich."

But in Canada ...

One might even look to the health care in Canada and other countries to see how they're faring. We heard a lot of commenters talking about nationalized systems. Some love them, some hate them. Here's one comment. We'd love to hear your perspective on this, too.

ellaskin: "I am a specialist working in Ontario, Canada. My waiting list is three weeks. Urgent referrals are seen on the same day or next day. A single payer system is certainly not perfect, and taxes in Canada are high, however there are no physicians in Canada that I know of on the verge of bankruptcy, and it beats dealing with insurance companies or patients that won't pay up. The misconceptions about the health care system in Canada are unbelievable. Yes there are longer wait times than in certain areas of the U.S., and you may not be able to get an MRI just because you want one, but this is not medicine. If you need an MRI, you will get one even on the same day, if you need to be seen urgently you will be seen. If you have metastatic cancer, you will be treated with expensive chemotherapeutic agents at no cost to you or your family outside of your tax rate. Yes if you have a cold or thinning nails or knee pain, it will take longer for you to be seen and or treated, but no system is perfect. I agree with some of the previous comments. If for-profit insurance companies were taken out of the mix in the U.S., I truly believe physicians, their patients and everyone would be better off."

Lack of incentive

There is little incentive to take on the risk of the medical business or accept the payments from insurance companies, this father of a doctor says.

borealbob: "My son is an MD/Ph.D. and this story is true. Most docs will no longer go into private practice and/or accept Medicare/Medicaid. This issue goes far beyond graduating with $300K of debt. To run a medical office and give optimal care takes time and money. When you cannot even pay your bills, there is no incentive to killing yourself and punishing your family. You can drive a cab and make more money than primary care physicians. Something needs to be fixed and fast."

Uncertain futures

Many commenters said they think the current system is unsustainable.

voyager68: "For those of you on this blog who blithely comment that we (doctors) will have to make due by not buying a new Mercedes every year, I have some incredible news for you! Most of us don't drive a Mercedes or have two or three vacation homes. Yes, in general, we have incomes that are considered high but it was no easy task to achieve that. Four years of college, four years of medical school and then anywhere from three to eight years of post-medical school training and several more years in private practice before we make the 'big bucks.' On top of that, we have to make life-and-death decisions every day, take call every fourth or fifth night (usually for 24 hours straight) and carry enormous liability on top of all that. Most of us are not kicking back and placing the burden on underlings. As for the future of medicine, do the math. Our expenses (employee salaries, health care premiums, cost of meds, devices, malpractice insurance, etc.) keep going up and our remimbursements are stagnant or going down. Unlike a traditional small business, we can't raise the price of our services, because they are fixed by the government or insurance compaines. The future of medicine in this country is in greater jeopardy than it has ever been and I fear the quality of care will diminish significantly."

What do you think about these opinions? How would you fix the health care system? Share your opinion in the comments area below and in the latest stories on CNN.com. Or sound off on video via CNN iReport.

Compiled by the CNN.com moderation staff. Some comments edited for length or clarity.

soundoff (109 Responses)
  1. Andreas Moser

    Why should a certain profession be immune from insolvency?
    Heck, even counties and cities are going broke.

    January 5, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. banasy©

    Here's a story:

    My state changed the immunization regulations, so I took had to take my kid to get her shots updated.
    It went through my insurance, minus my co-pay, and I got the EOB back, saying that what the provider charged was more than my insurance had an agreement with the provider for, and I would not be responsible for the difference.
    Not an uncommon scenario...

    But...

    On the EOB, it hadn't paid my provider *anything* at all.
    Nothing.

    I called my insurance, and they said I didn't owe anything. (A CYA move)

    I called my medical provider, who also said I had a zero balance. (A CYA move)

    I'm not complaining, exactly...but someone's getting screwed somewhere...

    It's just strange.

    January 5, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    WWWWAAAHHHHWWWWAAAAAHHHH!

    January 5, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • brightIdea

      while you complain about it, i highly doubt you hunt down an internet forum to lament the fact that you paid more that $100/hr to have your transmission in your car fixed... but it sure is easy to complain about the salary of someone who saves/extends your life... sad.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    ILL DRIVE MY 2011 BMW ONE MORE YEAR WWWWWWWAAAAAAHHHHH!

    January 5, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jazzy

    Did you meet your deductible banasy?

    January 5, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. banasy©

    Yes.
    I wasn't charged any more than my co-pay.

    January 5, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy©

    Hi, Drak.

    January 5, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jazzy

    Then your fine. Once you meet your deductible all you pay is the co-pay.

    January 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. White Coat Investor

    I'm a doc a few years out of residency. I drive a $4000 car. My last one was $2000. I'm not broke, but that's because I live a middle class lifestyle. I'm well aware I'm not the much-maligned "1%." The average physician makes $200K a year. That mean that many make less, some, much less. In fact, there are many primary care physicians, particularly pediatricians, who do not have a six figure salary.

    Considering they studied and trained (instead of earned) for at least 11 years, took on absurd amounts of student debt, work under the constant threat of lawsuits for even minor mistakes, and literally hold patients' lives in their hands, it seems absurd that they would be paid so little. Add on the risks of running a small business and the expectation of "being rich" held by their families, patients, and sometimes even themselves, and you can see why many go broke.

    The worst part about doctors not making decent money is that access to care suffers. If I were setting up a private practice, I sure as heck wouldn't do so anywhere but the rich side of town and I surely wouldn't take Medicare, Tricare, or Medicaid patients. That's a recipe for business failure.

    People need to quite blaming docs for our expensive health care system. It isn't physicians' salaries that are causing the problem. With 954,000 docs in the US, making on average $200K, that only comes out to $191 Billion. Considering we are spending $2.5 Trillion+ on health care, only 7.6% of our healthcare dollars are going to doctors.

    Docs can learn more about managing their personal and business finances at http://whitecoatinvestor.com

    January 5, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • cigarman

      I dont know where you are Doc, but it must not be on this Planet.

      January 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  10. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    THEY SCHEDULE 10 PEOPLE FOR 9 am ,SIT AND WAIT TWO HOURS TO GET IN THE EXAMINING ROOM. TALK TO THE DOCTOR TWO MINUTES ,AND OUT THE DOOR YOU GO.NOW IVE WENT TO THE SAME NEROSURGEON 15 YRS. I JUST HAD A LOWER BACK XRAY LAST WEEK BECAUSE MY DISC ARE GONE AND VERTIBRAE ARE FRACTURED .HE SAYS......WELL YOUR BACK IS STABLE AND I SEE NOTHING HAS CHANGED, TAKE THESE HORSE PILLS THAT WILL MAKE YOU SICK AS A DOG AND A 4 WEEKS OF THERAPY,COME BACK IN A MONTH. OH AND WHATS THAT HARDWARE IN YOUR HIP?.....I TOLD HIM IVE BEEN COMING HERE 15 YRS,I HAVE A STEEL PLATE AND SCREWS IN MY HIP....HE SAYS OH IVE NEVER SEEN THAT BEFORE!!!!IVE HAD 50XRAYS HE HAS LOOKED AT IN 15YRS!HE DOES'NT DESERVE TO DRIVE A VOLKSWAGON! CRY BABY DOCTORS CAN S*U*C*K* ME! POS QUACKS.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • brightIdea

      true... your 15 min of internet research trumps 10 yrs of education. Im sorry you had to wait to see your doctor. Did you apologize to the patient who was waiting after YOU? you know... the person next in line? oh you DIDNT?? you mean you expected 110% focus and extra time from the doctor but you didn't give a crap about the patient after you?? Wow... maybe the person before YOU had the same attitude. Its the funny thing about people... they're selfish to the core.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    HI BANASY© SORRY IM SO B@TCHY BUT THIS A THE SAME DOCTOR ,THAT PUT A STEEL PLATE AND SCREWS IN MY BROKEN NECK. IT MAKES ME WORRY.LOL !

    January 5, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jazzy

    @ THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1 , LMAO... You said a mouth full buddy 😉

    January 5, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Big Big Pharma

    Americans spend more on mind altering substances than they do on what's called 'National Defense'. Divide a doctor's income by the number of prescriptions he has written. This simple formula alone narrows down the search for fraudulent doktors who prescribe meds for profit by a substantial margin. Maybe i should email this formula to the CIA in Denver. They helped the FBI bust over 200 Dr. Fraud's last year in one sweep covering five cities, incl. Denver. Tick-tock Dr. Pill.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    I FIX MY OWN TRASMISSION WAD HOLE.I WISH I WAS DEAD. HE DIDNT DO ME NO FAVORS.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • brightIdea

      shame you can't fix your own spine... oh wait. that requires more than 8 yrs of education and a quarter million dollar educational investment. that's right.

      January 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. banasy©

    Oh, Drak, sweetie, I for one am glad you're not dead...

    @Jazzy: I was just wondering that if my insurance didn't pay my provider, and I am not responsible for it, then...what? Pooh! The debt is gone?
    Somebody is getting screwed.

    January 5, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
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