Tell Them What They’ve Won!

Americans love a good competition.  Especially if the winner gets a big jackpot. There’s nothing quite like that look of shock and elation when the winner realizes they are going home with wads of cash.

trophy and cash

I have a similar feeling every 2 weeks when my paycheck hits my checking account. I’m not sure why, but every time feels like the first time. I figure I’ve had about 200 paydays in my 7+ year career as an attending, and they still make me giddy.

It is easy to take your physician income for granted. We forget that most people would feel like they had won the lottery if they could earn your salary. Let’s compare average physician incomes to some of America’s favorite cash prizes.

Medscape Salary Survey
2018 Medscape Compensation Survey

Talent Competitions

Millions of Americans sit in front of their TVs night after night to watch people compete for amounts of money that you would consider a pay cut.

Beauty pageant contestants spend years dreaming of the day they can become Miss America and win a $50,000 scholarship.  Dog breeders spend years training and grooming their purebreds in the hopes that they can win $50,000 at the AKC national championship.  Somewhere out there a radiologist is winning that prize every 6.5 weeks of their career!

Maybe singing is your thing.  Shows like American Idol and The Voice show crowds of people lining up for blocks around stadiums for the chance to win “life changing” amounts of money.  The winner of The Voice this year will walk away with $100,000.  This year’s American Idol pockets $250,000.  The average emergency physician has the same earning power as someone who wins both competitions year after year.

Tonight Dr. Jones will be performing “admit to hospitalist”.

Not a good singer?  No problem.  Being an OB/Gyn is equivalent to winning America’s Got Talent (That million dollar prize is actually a 40 year annuity worth $300,000 as a lump sum).  Critical care medicine pays slightly better than winning Dancing with the Stars ($345,000).  You may not have to Foxtrot, but you certainly have to tango with vents and pressors.

Game Shows

I love game shows.  It involves two of my favorite things:  feeling smart and making easy money.  We watch a lot of Family Feud in our house.  The record for the most money ever won on that show is $48,500 (or as pediatricians call it – 3 months pay).

Survey says: Developmental screening pays well!

The record prize for Wheel of Fortune is $91,000.  Allergists bring that home every 4 months without even buying a vowel.

The Price is Right is an American staple.  The showcase showdown has been around longer than many of you have been alive.  The biggest prize ever won on that show is $1,153,908.  Not too shabby.  An orthopedist will make that every 2.3 years without even having to win Plinko.

Reality TV

My wife and I are suckers for reality TV too.  Our guilty pleasure for the past 15 years has been watching Big Brother every summer.  Houseguests are trapped in a house all summer competing for a chance to win $500,000.  It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Unless you’re a plastic surgeon.  Then it’s just a once a year inevitability.

Don’t judge me. I like what I like.

Don’t want to be trapped in a house all summer?  Perhaps you prefer a desert island or mad dash around the globe.  Competitors in Survivor and Amazing Race will do whatever it takes to win 4 years of a rheumatologist’s salary ($1 million).


Americans love their athletes too.  Somewhere out there is an olympic athlete who has been getting up at dawn every day since they were 10 years old, driving two hours to a training facility and pushing their bodies to the limit.  They have one dream – to win one month of a nephrologist’s paycheck (a gold medal comes with a $25,000 prize).

I’ve been told that a medical career is a marathon, not a sprint.  You need to pace yourself if you want to make it to the finish line.  Somewhere out there the winner of the Boston Marathon will run away with 5 months of a urologist’s salary ($150,000).

Professional sports championships pay slightly better.  Winning the Stanley Cup ($188,261 bonus per player) is almost as good as a Preventative Medicine job ($199,000).  Being an anesthesiologist ($386,000) pays better than winning the Super Bowl ($112,000) and the NBA Championship ($236,000) every year.

Whoever wins this trophy would rather moonlight at a surgicenter.

Professional Honors

Journalists dream of the day they win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.  Although it is quite an honor, it is less than 2 weeks of a cardiologist’s paycheck ($15,000).

And the prize for best ECG interpretation goes to….

Chances are you will not have the opportunity to win a Pulitzer.  If you’re really lucky though, maybe you could win a Nobel Prize in Medicine.  Aside from joining the ranks of Watson and Crick, you would also win 3 years of general surgeon’s income ($1 million).

You’ve Already Won the Game!

Congratulations!  You’ve done it! You’ve figured out a way to win jackpots year after year after year. You may feel underpaid for the hard work you do, but someone out there has a lifelong dream to win less money than you would accept to work one of the most respected jobs in the country.

Announcer – tell them what they’ve won!

comparisson chart

I realize there is a big difference between sacrificing your youth, health and sanity for a medical career and spinning the Wheel of Fortune for an hour. I also think it is important to step back once in a while to gain some perspective.

Congratulations! You’ve already won. Time to enjoy your grand prize.

What do you think? Do you consider your physician salary to be a jackpot or a consolation prize? Share your thoughts and comments below.


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21 thoughts on “Tell Them What They’ve Won!

  1. I have often reverse engineered what my salary is in terms of an annuitized lottery payment (which is typically spread out over 20 years) and it is a huge amount (hitting 8 figures). Of course a lottery winner doesn’t have to trade time for money for it and thus has the better scenario. But you are right that we all are lottery winners in terms of income coming in. Nice comparison with all the various prize money options there are (and I too am a reality TV junkie)


  2. Very interesting post and perspective. I had no idea that the grand prizes of those singing competitions are so comparatively little. Of course, winning certainly shines a spotlight on the talent and can create more financial opportunities (Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, etc.)


  3. Over the years, I’ve compared my salary to the NFL rookie minimum salary and I haven’t been that far off.

    The big advantages I have are the potential for career longevity, lower likelihood of brain or bodily injury, and I don’t have colleagues making 8-figure salaries.

    Whenever the radio station or local business advertises a big giveaway (vacation to Maui, new car, $10,000), I think about how little it would matter to me if I won. That’s kind of sad in a way, but I feel happy for the person who does win when it really does feel life-changing (even though it’s often not — at least in the grand scheme of things).


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still remember the first summer our conversation shifted from “could you imagine winning $500,000” to “would it be worth $500,000 to be trapped in the Big Brother house?”

      Everything is relative. When I was an intern I hugged a complete stranger in H&R Block because I got a $8,000 refund. You would have thought Ed McMahon just handed me a big novelty check.

      You may not deal with a locker room full of jocks, but you do have a PACU full of orthopods, and that’s pretty close!


  4. Wow. I always wondered how much these game show / talent show / reality show contestants make. Now I know! And I’m surprised that it’s not that much compared to how much the TV execs and producers are making. What a smart racket.

    Btw, I actually personally know some anesthesiologists who were on reality TV shows. Mick Trimming of Survivor fame was cardiac anesthesia fellow back when I was a resident. And Nat and Kat were the winners of season 17 of The Amazing Race. They were both anesthesiology residents when I was a medical student in the same institution. Funny how these anesthesiologists were my teachers and mentors at one point.

    Which brings up an interesting point. Why are there so many anesthesiologists blogging and entering reality TV show competitions? Or maybe it’s because I trained in Hollywood. Hmmm…


  5. This is such a great perspective – I hear a lot of griping about how “little” those of us in primary care make, but we definitely have more than enough in the grand scheme things, even after we pay for the loans.

    Fortunately I have a non-medical husband to remind me of this when I start going down that path as well!

    Great post!


    1. It definitely helps to have non medical people in your life to give you perspective. I think it also gives you a sense of gratitude which makes you appreciate the job more.

      Most people would give their left leg for our earning potential. We should never take this jackpot for granted.

      Liked by 1 person

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