Bigger Incomes for Specialty Nurses Drive Physicians Away From Primary Practice

Specialist nurses have bigger paychecks than physicians.  At a time when primary-care physicians are in short supply, many hospitals are offering bigger paychecks and incentives to specialist nurses such as certified nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), nurses who administer anesthesia to patients during surgical procedures.  A study conducted by Merritt Hawkins & Associates, a physician recruiting firm, found that primary-care physicians were offered an average base salary of $173,000 last year compared with the $189,000 average for CRNAs.

“It’s the fourth year in a row that CRNAs were recruited at a higher pay than a family doctor,” said Kurt Mosley, a staffing expert with Merritt Hawkins.  As the number of surgeries has grown in recent years, creating demand for anesthesiologists and anesthetists, CRNA salaries have trended higher.  Mosley notes that the income disparity is not going to encourage medical students to pick primary practice, at a time when the nation is facing a shortage of approximately 60,000 physicians in that specialty.

“The demand for primary-care doctors will increase twofold when health reform happens and millions of more Americans have access to healthcare,” Mosley said.  “Who is going to triage these patients?  It’s not the neurologist or the pulmonologist.  It has to be the primary-care doctor.”

The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) argues that its members are receiving the compensation they deserve.  “From our perspective, we are fairly compensated for the level of responsibility that we shoulder,” said Lisa Thiemann, the AANA’s senior director of professional services and a CRNA for 14 years.  “We are at the head of the patient’s bed.  We deliver anesthesia and we keep the patient safe.  Once nurses and physicians arrive at anesthesia training, we use the same textbooks and the same cases.  We all deliver anesthesia the same way.”

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