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Reinhardt Nails the Matter -- Are Docs Paid Too Much?

Reinhardt Nails the Matter -- Are Docs Paid Too Much?

August 6, 2007

Last week we highlighted a provocative New York Times column asking the question: are physicians paid too much?" Click here for that posting. Today's Times includes a letter in response from Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt. Uwe, in his inimitable style, nails the appropriate response, which we print below in full:

In “Sending Back the Doctor’s Bill” (Week in Review, July 29), you compare the incomes of American physicians with those earned by doctors in other countries and suggest that American doctors seem overpaid. A more relevant benchmark, however, would seem to be the earnings of the American talent pool from which American doctors must be recruited.

Any college graduate bright enough to get into medical school surely would be able to get a high-paying job on Wall Street. The obverse is not necessarily true. Against that benchmark, every American doctor can be said to be sorely underpaid.

Besides, cutting doctors’ take-home pay would not really solve the American cost crisis. The total amount Americans pay their physicians collectively represents only about 20 percent of total national health spending. Of this total, close to half is absorbed by the physicians’ practice expenses, including malpractice premiums, but excluding the amortization of college and medical-school debt.

This makes the physicians’ collective take-home pay only about 10 percent of total national health spending. If we somehow managed to cut that take-home pay by, say, 20 percent, we would reduce total national health spending by only 2 percent, in return for a wholly demoralized medical profession to which we so often look to save our lives. It strikes me as a poor strategy.

Physicians are the central decision makers in health care. A superior strategy might be to pay them very well for helping us reduce unwarranted health spending elsewhere.

Uwe E. Reinhardt
Princeton, N.J., July 30, 2007