Radiologist salaries fell by 3% last year, despite increased productivity

Last year was the first time in a decade physician salaries didn’t increase by at least 2 percent, according to a survey published this week by AMGA Consulting. Though radiologists saw a dip in their average salaries, they’re still faring well compared to specialties like neurology and internal medicine.

The report, from the American Medical Group Association (AMGA), found overall physician compensation rose by just 0.89 percent between 2016 and 2017—the lowest figure in years and one that lagged behind last year’s inflation rate. Despite mean salaries for diagnostic radiologists dropping 3 percent, from $503,225 in 2016 to $487,239 in 2017, and salaries for interventional radiologists falling from $610,500 to $588,471, Yale professor Howard P. Forman, MD, told the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) the outlook is positive.

“Radiology is a remarkably resilient specialty and remains consistent despite shifts in healthcare,” Forman said in a news release from the RSNA.

He said many specialties, including radiology, are fighting against downstream effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), like reimbursement cuts that have resulted in salary deflations. In less than a decade since implementation began, the ACA has reached around 20 million Americans, meaning radiologists are seeing more patients than ever, under more scrutiny than ever, with less financial reward.

“While there are more covered individuals and the radiologist is seeing more work, the cash generated per relative value unit (RVU) will go down,” Forman explained.

Work RVUs for diagnostic radiologists actually increased by 0.6 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the survey, but interventional radiologists saw an 8 percent decrease in median productivity over the same period. Forman said the decline in productivity on interventional radiology’s part could have a direct impact on diagnostic imaging, since most practices still employ both interventional and diagnostic radiologists. Interventional reimbursement has dropped, he said, and some administrators may be tempted to re-allocate diagnostic radiology funds.

“This may not be sustainable,” Forman said. “Diagnostic radiologists can increase productivity and work and take small pay cuts in the short run, but it will be hard to make the case that diagnostic radiology’s clinical revenue must support the interventional radiology practice for too long. And it begs the question as to whether interventional radiology practice spin-offs are really a good strategy.”

Forman does predict an uptick in radiologist salaries as artificial intelligence continues to develop and aid productivity efforts, but he said AI is “more theoretical than practical” at the moment. 

“As future practices embrace ever-growing and eventually more practical AI applications, productivity will likely accelerate, and faster than reimbursement can be reduced,” he said. “This will result in a brief period of accelerating radiology compensation increases.”