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The doctor is in -- but not for long

February 23, 2010 |  1:00 pm

Clock In the public perception, medical doctors are among the hardest-working, most dedicated professionals in the workforce, routinely toiling through 12- or 15-hour days.

Some doctors undoubtedly do work that much. But the trend in the United States is for doctors to work less, not more. Today's physicians work, on average, 51 hours a week -- a figure, I'm guessing, is not uncommon in a great many other professions (teaching, law, journalism).

A study released Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. surveyed doctors' work hours from 1976 to 2008. About 1997, doctors began working less, with hours declining nearly 7.2% between 1997 to 2007. The drop was seen across all types of doctors: men, women, young, old, hospital-based, self-employed, resident and non-resident. However, older doctors still tend to work more hours than younger doctors.

It's not clear why doctors are working less, but the decline in pay-per-hour is likely one cause. Average doctor fees, adjusted for inflation, decreased by 25% between 1995 and 2006. Doctors today "may have less incentive" to work, the authors of the paper note.

The trend has implications for society. Doctor shortages are already felt in some parts of the country and are predicted to become more acute in coming years. And, the paper notes, a 5.7% decrease in hours among a workforce of 630,000 doctors is equivalent to the loss of nearly 36,000 doctors.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Juan Carlos Hernandez  /  Bloomberg News