Survey Reveals Why HIV Doctors Really Are Different

Despite Lowest Pay, Higher Overall Job Satisfaction
Photograph © Walt Stoneburner

In the same way that all doctors aren't created equal, all medical disciplines vary by the types of doctors they attract and the reasons for their attraction. In April 2015, Medscape, the New York-based healthcare information provider, released their annual Physician's Compensation Report, which analyzes the earnings, practices and job satisfaction of over 24,000 physicians in the U.S.

The report provides some surprising insights about HIV specialists in particular, shedding some light on a profession (and professionals) that we often take for granted.

Fact # 1: HIV doctors make less than any other medical specialty in the U.S.

Of the 26 specialties listed in the survey, HIV physicians were at the very bottom of the pay scale, averaging around $213,000 per annum. That's $71,000 per year less than the average physician salary in the U.S. ($284,000) and almost half of an orthopedic specialist makes ($421,000).

Despite this, HIV doctors had the single biggest leap in income, with a reported 22% increase between 2014 and 2015. Much of this may be attributed, in part, to the ramping up and coordination of HIV programs in high prevalence U.S. cities, with an increased focusing of the linking and re-linking of patients to HIV-specific care.  

Fact #2: Less than half of HIV doctors believe that they are fairly compensated.

On average, 46% of all physicians believe that they are fairly compensated, according to the survey. HIV doctors fall more-or-less in line with that figure at 48%.

Ironically, only 39% of dermatologists feel that they are properly compensated, despite making 50% more that what an HIV doctor makes.

Fact #3: Overall, HIV doctors reported greater job satisfaction and would choose medicine again if given a choice.

According to the report, physicians at the higher end of the pay scale tended to regret their choice of becoming doctors in the first place.

In fact, only 51% of plastic surgeons (#24), 50% of orthopedic specialists (#25), and 48% of radiologists (#26) said that they would choose medicine again if given the choice.

By contrast, HIV doctors were rated #3 on the list, 65% of whom believed that being a doctor was the right choice for them. In terms of overall job satisfaction, HIV doctors ranked #4 behind, in ascending order, cardiology, pediatrics, emergency medicine, pathology, psychology, and cardiology.

Fact #4: When all is said and done, the majority of HIV doctors believe that they've chosen the right career for themselves.

On the flip side, physicians at the low end of the pay scale generally tend to regret their career choices. For example, only 25% of internal medicine specialists ($196,000) and 32% of those in family practice ($195,000) would choose the same specialty if given a choice today.

Bucking that trend are HIV doctors, who despite sitting at the low end of the pay scale, are more likely to believe they have made the right career choice (50%).

Impending Shortage of HIV Specialists?

Despite greater overall job satisfaction, the impact of lower salaries has caused concerns among many that there may soon be shortage of young physicians wanting to specialize in HIV/AIDS.

According to research published by the American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIV), the debt levels experienced by medical students today ranged anywhere from $75,000 to $200,000 on average. With low monetary reimbursements from Medicaid and Medicare for HIV care, the authors argue that the incentive to enter HIV will be diminished in favor of more lucrative specialties.

According the survey, more than one-third of the specialists registered with AAHIV plan to retire in the next 5-10 years. With fewer and fewer doctors likely to more than 75% of the doctors surveyed believed that a future shortage of HIV specialists is likely. In order to allay such shortages, 74% believed either "strongly" or "very strongly" that the government should forgive college debt for medical students entering HIV, while 61% stated that incentives should be created to delay retirement for qualified treaters.

Regardless of whether such incentives are likely given the dramatic changes in the U.S. healthcare system, it is clear that there remains a steadfast base of young doctors who have every intention of entering the specialty. Of medical students specifically interested in HIV/AIDS, the "ability to impact health for patients with life-threatening illnesses" ranked #1 among the reasons why they would choose the specialty, while 60% stated that prestige was among the least of their concerns.

Yet, of the same student respondents, only one in three were certain that would ultimately pursue the practice, with 90% stating that college loan repayment by the government would likely be the incentive to ensure their participation. All told, 71% listed salary as at least "somewhat important" to any decision they would ultimately make.


Peckham,C. "Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2015." Medscape. April 21, 2015; online edition.

American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIV). "New AAHIV Survey Warns of Workforces Shortages in HIV/AIDS Medicine." HIV Specialist. February 2009; online edition:10-15.

Continue Reading