According to the Medscape Rheumatologist Compensation Report 2021, despite being below the middle earners for over 29 physician specialties surveyed in the past several years, rheumatologists are among the few medical specialists to see a notable increase in earnings year-over-year. Rheumatologists averaged earnings of $276,000 in the most recent survey year of 2021 versus $262,000 in 2020 and $259,000 in 2019. However, as with all other medical specialties, and despite seeing averages increase over the past several years, rheumatologists were not entirely immune to the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial impact.

The most recent Medscape report details some of this financial impact, including these key findings.

  • Just under half of rheumatologists, or 42%, reported some decline in compensation.
  • The vast majority, 95%, who saw a drop in income cited COVID-19-related issues like job loss, reduced hours, and a decrease in patient volume.
  • Nearly half of rheumatologists, or 48%, who saw a drop in income believe it will take 2-3 years for earnings to return to normal.
  • Rheumatologists are seeing far fewer patients per week on average this year, at 77 versus 85 the previous year. This compares with some other medical specialists like pediatricians, dermatologists, orthopedists, and otolaryngologists, who were seeing 15% to 18% fewer patients than in the previous survey year.
  • Of the self-employed rheumatologists, 46% believe that a drop in patient volume of up to a quarter is going to be permanent.

The report also detailed some positives.

  • Four in 10 rheumatologists surveyed who suffered financial- or practice-related ill effects due to the pandemic expect their income to return to normal this year.
  • Rheumatologists spent less time on average this year, or 15.2 hours per week, on medical-related work outside of patient visits versus the overall physician average of 16.3 hours per week, including time devoted to paperwork, EHR documentation, administrative and managerial work, participation in professional organizations, and clinical reading.
  • Rheumatologists are working the same average number of hours per week, 47, as the previous survey year.

The report also notes that 68% of rheumatologists who responded to the survey were planning to participate in the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) in 2021, with only 20% having yet to decide. According to Elizabeth Woodcock, MBA, CPC, president of physician practice consulting firm Woodcock & Associates in Atlanta, the stakes for the Quality Payment program, which incorporates MIPS, are high, with a 9% penalty applied to all Medicare reimbursement for failure to participate. As such, it is recommended that rheumatologists and other specialists protect their revenue by complying with the minimum requirements of the program.