No one ever said becoming a doctor was easy. Medical school is competitive, rigorous and expensive. If you’re going to invest the considerable time, effort and money necessary to earn your M.D. or D.O., then you want your medical career to be rewarding enough – financially and otherwise – to make your work worthwhile.
Medicine is known as a lucrative field, but even within the industry, earnings can vary substantially from one specialty to the next. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that all physicians earn a median annual wage above $187,200 per year. Some physicians, like those in primary care, don’t earn much more than that – $195,000 per year on average, according to CBS News. Others make more than double what their general practitioner peers bring home each year. As a whole, specialists make $284,000 per year on average, Medscape reported. In recent years, numerous publications have compared the earnings associated with the different specialties of medicine. Our list of the top 10 highest paying medical specialties delves into several of these rankings to show you which specialties truly pay the most money – and what to expect working in them.
1. Invasive Cardiology
If you don’t mind the pressure of literally holding a patient’s heart in your hands, then the top-paying field of invasive cardiology might be the right medical specialty for you to pursue. Forbes reported that doctors who practice invasive cardiology earn an average base salary of $525,000 per year. If you’re interested in heart health but not necessarily the high-stress invasive aspect of the specialty, cardiology more generally is still a rewarding choice. CBS News rated the specialty of cardiology second-highest, bringing in $376,000 in annually for patient care.
Cardiologists specialize in heart health. They assess heart function and cardiovascular health through blood flow, blood pressure and other health indicators. Cardiologists order diagnostic tests, perform procedures and prescribe medication to improve suboptimal heart health. These doctors may work with patients who are in the advanced stages of heart failure and even those who need transplants. Invasive cardiologists are surgeons who carry out procedures such as repairing damaged heart valves, inserting pacemakers or defibrillators and performing heart bypass operations.
What They Do: Heart health and surgery
Annual Earnings: $525,000
Training: 1 year of subspecialty training on top of 3 years of general cardiology training
2. Orthopedic Surgery
Orthopedic surgeons earn a base salary of $497,000 per year, according to Forbes. Other sources cite different earnings for the specialty, but it consistently ranks high on the list. For example, Medscape and CBS News listed the average wages for orthopedic surgeons as $421,000, but rank the field as the top-paying specialty in medicine.
Treating the musculoskeletal system means working on the spine, extremities, and related structures. Orthopedic surgeons often treat patients who suffered injuries in a trauma of some kind, though they also treat congenital (from birth) conditions, infections, cancer and degenerative (progressive) diseases. Even within the specialty of orthopedic surgery, there are numerous subspecialties. Some orthopedic surgeons work exclusively on procedures on the hand or foot and ankle. They may also focus on a particular type of condition, like cancer (oncology) or sports injuries (sports medicine). Orthopedic surgeons set broken bones, replace damaged joints, repair injured tendons and surgically remove tumors.
What They Do: Surgical procedures on the musculoskeletal system
Annual Earnings: $497,000
Training: 5 years
Reporting a base salary of $455,000 per year, Forbes ranked gastroenterology the third highest paying specialty in medicine. Medscape also rated the specialty equally highly, though it listed annual earnings of $370,000.
Gastroenterologists treat disorders that occur in every part of the digestive system, from the esophagus through the stomach and even the bowels, and including organs like the liver, gallbladder, pancreas and others within the abdominal cavity. As part of the specialty of internal medicine, gastroenterology focuses on diagnosing and treating conditions like heartburn, diarrhea, acid reflux, ulcers and pain. These specialists play a role in preventing and diagnosing cancers of the digestive organs, including esophageal and colon cancer. Gastroenterologists perform minimally invasive procedures and diagnostic tests like endoscopies, which allow doctors to see inside the gastrointestinal organs.
What They Do: Digestive health
Annual Earnings: $455,000
Training: 3 years of subspecialty training on top of 3 years of internal medicine training
Urologists make an annual base salary of $412,000, Forbes reported. Medscape ranked the specialty lower on the list, with earnings of just $344,000 per year, but even on this list urology still made the top 10.
Urology is the medical specialty that focuses on the health of the urinary tract of both genders and the reproductive system of male patients. A number of organs and structures fall under the domain of urologists, including the bladder, kidney, prostate and urethra as well as male genitals. Urologists diagnose and treat – surgically, when necessary – conditions like urinary tract and bladder infections, difficulty urinating, incontinence, kidney stones, enlarged prostate and male infertility.
What They Do: Urinary tract
Annual Earnings: $412,000
Training: 5 years
As the largest organ of the body, it’s no wonder skin gets its own specialist. Forbes lists a base annual salary of $412,000 for dermatologists, while Medscape reports earnings of $339,000.
Dermatologists diagnose and treat skin disorders of all kinds, from acne to cancer. They may perform routine skin examinations to screen for signs of melanoma or other forms of skin cancer, tracking any changes in the appearance or location of moles. They may perform diagnostic tests like biopsies on unusual skin conditions and changes. Dermatologists treat skin allergies, infections, eczema and other conditions. Many dermatologists also perform cosmetic procedures, ranging from laser surgery and excisions of unwanted skin conditions and markings to liposuction, chemical peels and injections of dermal fillers like Botox.
What They Do: Skin health
Annual Earnings: $412,000
Training: 4 years
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Anesthesiologists are the doctors responsible for keeping patients pain-free, sedated or unconscious during surgical procedures. The important job comes with a high earning potential – $358,000 annually, according to Medscape. That salary lands anesthesiology the fourth-place spot on Medscape’s list of the best paying medical specialties, CBS News reported – though salaries for specialists like urologists and dermatologists overshadow that of anesthesiologists in other publications.
Though not surgeons themselves, anesthesiologists work primarily with patients undergoing surgery. They prepare the patient for diagnostic procedures and operations that would be painful or uncomfortable by administering anesthetics, pain relief medications. During surgery, anesthesiologists observe the patient’s pulse, blood pressure, breathing, body temperature and other vital signs for any signs of pain or stress and adjust pain medications accordingly. They monitor patients after surgery and contribute to postoperative care. Anesthesiologists also use their expertise in pain medications to help patients with chronic pain, those in the intensive care unit (ICU) and mothers going through childbirth find effective and safe pain relief.
What They Do: Pain relief during surgery
Annual Earnings: $358,000
Training: 4 years
7. Plastic Surgery
Dermatologists may do some cosmetic procedures, but plastic surgeons are the physicians who devote their careers to medical aesthetics. Medscape reports annual earnings of $354,000 for plastic surgeons. Earnings for plastic surgeons have increased consistently over recent years, moving from 10th place to 5th place in just five years, CBS News reported.
Plastic surgeons may work on virtually any visual body part, from the appearance of the skin to the shape of the torso, breasts, and limbs and even external reproductive structures. While the goal of cosmetic surgery is often to enhance the aesthetic appearance of the body, some plastic surgery procedures are reconstructive, intended to repair damage done by an injury or disease that affects function as well as appearance. Plastic surgeons typically use skin grafts, implants, liposuction techniques, tissue transfers and other methods to achieve the appearance improvements desired by their patients. As with other specialties, plastic surgery includes subspecialties like surgery on the head and face (craniofacial surgery), the hand and serious burns.
What They Do: Cosmetic procedures
Annual Earnings: $354,000
Training: 2 years
Radiology is the use of nuclear radiation for medical purposes, ranging from diagnostic tests to radiation treatments. Radiologists earn an average of $351,000, Medscape reported.
In hospitals and other healthcare settings, diagnostic radiologists are the medical doctors who read and interpret diagnostic imaging tests like X-rays, ultrasounds, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). Radiologists may also serve interventional roles, such as taking part in image guided therapy and administering radiation to cancer patients. Radiologists often specialize in imaging different regions of the body, like chest and cardiac imaging, abdominal imaging and performing mammograms to screen for breast cancer
What They Do: Diagnostic testing and radiation treatments
Annual Earnings: $351,000
Training: 5 years
9. Emergency Medicine
Emergency medicine is what it sounds like – the specialty that focuses on caring for and stabilizing patients during medical emergencies. Forbes lists the annual base salary for specialists in the field of emergency medicine as $345,000. Medscape puts the salary somewhat lower, at $306,000 per year, but within its ranking of the top 10 highest paying specialties.
In a medical emergency, doctors have to act fast. Making the wrong decision could endanger the patient’s life or leave them with permanent disabilities, but so could waiting too long to take action. Specialists in emergency medicine work in both emergency department and pre-hospital settings to recognize and treat acute diseases and severe injuries. Quick and accurate decision-making is essential to saving the lives of emergency patients, so these physicians need a strong background in clinical and technical skills and a breadth of medical knowledge to draw from when evaluating patients and planning patient care.
What They Do: Emergency care
Annual Earnings: $345,000
Training: 3 years
10. General Surgery
General surgery rounds out the top 10 highest paying medical specialties, with Forbes reporting a yearly base salary of $339,000. Medscape also ranks the specialty among the most lucrative, listing the salary for general surgeons as $317,000.
Many other specialties – including some among the highest paying, like orthopedic surgery and invasive cardiology – practice surgery. A doctor who specializes in general surgery has a broad base of knowledge that allows them to treat a wide range of medical conditions through operations with specialized tools. Most general surgeons perform procedures that involve the skin, neck, breasts, abdomen and arteries, referring patients with orthopedic, neurologic, cardiac and similar conditions to surgeons in the appropriate specialties. General surgeons work with their patients throughout the surgical process, from diagnosing the medical condition that requires surgery and prepping them for the procedure to providing postoperative care.
What They Do: Operations
Annual Earnings: $339,000
Training: 5 years
Editor’s Note: The earnings, training requirements and responsibilities listed in this article are meant as a guide only for aspiring doctors to do their own research into the medical specialties that interest them. As noted in the article, even credible publications may report vastly different wages for physicians of the same specialties. Training information presented in this article comes from the Association of American Medical Colleges, does not include time spent in medical earning a M.D. or D.O., and is subject to change.