By Dr. Rikki Racela, WCI Columnist

Yes, you read that headline right. I made a five-figure sum last year doing online surveys for medical professionals. How did I accomplish such a feat? How did I make an extra $30,000 in a year? Well, there are a few principles that allowed me to attain such a sum from paid surveys. Let's explore how I did it.

As a neurologist:

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  1. I see a lot of patients
  2. I see a lot of different types of patients
  3. I am in a specialty where a lot of new drugs have come out
  4. I prescribe a lot of those new drugs
  5. I talk with multiple reps that advertise these new drugs
  6. I attend multiple pharmaceutical dinners promoting these new drugs (I am a sucker for free food!)
  7. I enjoy doing them
  8. I don’t live in Vermont (more on this later)

If you have ever done a paid survey, you will notice that the initial screening questions that they ask address many of the principles above. That is because they want to know solid information from doctors who actually prescribe the drugs or services that the survey is asking about. Let’s break down these principles one by one.

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I See a Lot of Patients

The majority of, if not all, online surveys will ask how many patients you see per month or per year. This is by design, as doctors who see a ton of patients have likely prescribed the drug they are being asked about. And I see a lot of patients. I typically see 14-16 patients a day and work five days a week; that’s 75 patients a week, totaling 300 patients a month. With the many varied neurological ailments I encounter, I prescribe an immense array of pharmaceuticals. This is exactly what survey companies want to see in the doctors who take their surveys. Whatever product they want to learn about will most likely be utilized by a busy physician.


I See a Lot of Different Types of Patients

Another screening question asked is the number of different types of patients you see. Companies will list various pathologies, but there is usually one disease on which surveyors are focused. Many of the drugs the surveyors are asking about are geared toward a specific disease state. In order not to telegraph exactly which disease state they are interested in—lest you are dishonest just to qualify for the survey—many diseases are listed. As a general neurologist, I see all types of neurological patients, and as mentioned above, I see a lot of them. That sets me up in a perfect position to answer questions in-depth about any type of disease/drug the surveyors wish to discuss.


Drug Development in My Specialty

My patients and I have been blessed with a plethora of novel drugs that have been developed for various neurological diseases. Numerous surveys I have taken throughout my career have involved multiple sclerosis drugs. Up until I started residency training 15 years ago, there were only two classes of immunomodulatory medications that an MS patient could choose from. Now, there are over 15 FDA-approved MS medications. This is not just limited to multiple sclerosis. There have been countless new drugs for various neurological diseases, including migraine, myasthenia gravis, and narcolepsy . . . The list goes on and on.


I Prescribe a Lot of These New Drugs

Because I see a lot of patients with varying ailments, I have experience using all of these new medications. And survey companies pay me for my experience, trying to delve into why I choose one medication over another and the advantages and disadvantages for different types of patients. Going back to my MS example, the MS marketplace has become very crowded, which is why surveyors pay me good money for my opinion on how I differentiate prescribing one MS drug over another. This is not just limited to multiple sclerosis. I have experience prescribing plenty of other new drugs and I can provide insights into why I chose one drug over another for all types of neurological diseases. Survey companies want my opinion.


I Talk with Drug Reps

Many of the medical surveys also ask about the promotional material and my opinions on the pharmaceutical company salesforce that advertises to me. Since I am open to seeing pharmaceutical reps, I can furnish this information and qualify for surveys that ask for salesforce information. Whether it’s the free food they bring, the colorful promotional material they give me and my patients, or even the utilization of an iPad, many of the paid surveys I have taken ask for this information. My colleagues who have ethical qualms about talking to pharma reps will undoubtedly screen out of these types of surveys. But companies value information on how their salesforce is doing, and they pay for feedback, positive or negative, through paid surveys.

Also, realize that I am OK with having the monetary value of any accepted food being reported on the Open Payments website. This is a government-run website where all payments in the form of money, food, educational materials, and basically anything given to a doctor are archived for public disclosure. It's a good thing that patients have the opportunity to see any pharmaceutical bias I might have from free food or speaker engagements. I like to think I stay objective when exposed to promotional programs, but patients may not feel so comfortable. They can utilize Open Payments to steer clear of potentially biased physicians.

Which brings me to my next point: If you are recognized in any of these potential surveys, there is a disclaimer that your honoraria will be reported to Open Payments. I'm unclear how there could be a possibility of being identified by the sponsoring drug company of a survey when the survey is being administered by a third party that anonymizes its data, but the disclaimer is there. I would assume the chances of being identified are close to nil, but if you want to feel secure when filling out these online surveys, you will have to accept this possibility. Surveys generally will give you the option that if you are personally identified, you can forfeit your honoraria and not be reported to Open Payments.

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I Attend Drug Dinners

Aside from the promotional methods and tactics of their salesforce, survey companies also would like my opinion on their paid speakers and the effectiveness of pharmaceutical dinners. This makes logical sense, as many of these expensive dinners—usually held at fancy restaurants—feature an expert physician speaker, who also gets paid, who explains the product and tries to convince fellow physicians of the merits of a particular drug. If pharmaceutical companies discover through paid surveys that this type of promotion is not effective, this would be valuable information to save the company thousands, if not millions, of dollars on continuing this type of advertising. Because I attend a lot of these functions (thank goodness for my nanny!), I can attend many of these dinners and subsequently provide my opinion through paid surveys.


I Actually Enjoy Doing Them

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After a long day of work and trying to get the kids to bed, I am exhausted and I have minimal mental energy to do anything productive. To unwind, I usually like listening to old-school 80s music, but just listening to music would make me feel unproductive. I do many of these surveys at the same time I’m blasting Roxette or Corey Hart (corny, I know). As I am listening to music, I am actually being incredibly productive by making survey money. On average, a 30-minute survey will pay me anywhere from $45-$80 depending on how rare the neurological disease that is being surveyed. Also, I am expanding my knowledge, as these surveys often focus on current drugs and new drugs on the horizon. I tend to learn a little something from every survey while getting my 80s pop rock fix.

Another aspect of paid surveys that I celebrate is whenever there is downtime, I can always grab my phone and turn a potential waste of time into monetary productivity. Just last week, I was dropping off my daughter at preschool just as teachers had reported the smell of gas in the building. We had to wait nearly 45 minutes for the fire department to give the all-clear. Since my 5-year-old daughter hates talking to me (perhaps it's because I'm the one who wakes her up for school), I did two surveys while waiting.

And this is just one example of where downtime is no longer downtime when you have your phone handy. Got a new consult on the other side of the hospital where you have to walk a mile or more? Do a survey. On hold while talking to an insurance company on the phone? Do a survey. The office staff falling behind checking in patients, and you are waiting for them to be roomed? Do a survey. LP tray nowhere to be found, and nurses have to go down to the ER to get one? Do a survey. Your spouse annoyed that you are taking too many surveys? Well, you likely should not do a survey in that instance. Realize that many of the frustrating instances of having to wait now disappear because taking paid surveys actually allows me to be productive.

But wait, there’s more! The more surveys that you perform, the more surveys will come your way. In fact, many of the surveys will ask if you want to receive more surveys in the future. The more you enjoy doing surveys, the more that you can do, and the more that will come your way. In the end, it is my enjoyment of completing surveys that is the main driver of why I make so much dough. These surveys help me to decompress from a long day and transform unproductive time into a huge monetary benefit.

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I Don’t Live in Vermont

This might seem sort of random, but it is actually illegal for a doctor licensed in Vermont to partake in paid surveys because it violates the gift ban law instituted in that state. As a result, all surveys will ask specifically if you are licensed in Vermont. If so, you will not qualify for the survey. Other violations include working for the government or Kaiser Permanente, which also is specifically asked in all surveys. Finally, to eliminate bias, you can’t work for or have anyone in your immediate family work for a pharmaceutical or advertising company. If any of the above applies to you, you cannot participate in market research.


Extra Credit: Telephone and Zoom Interviews

Physician surveys taken on the telephone or over Zoom can also make you money. I usually get paid about $300 per hour when doing these telephone or Zoom interviews. They are much more lucrative because these interviews are at a scheduled time and are less flexible to do at your leisure. However, I love doing these interviews as I get paid more and I can usually multitask while the interview is being conducted. I try to schedule these telephone calls when I am cleaning the house, doing dishes, or even commuting. For example, in my last telephone interview, I was loading the dishwasher and picking up Cheerios off the floor while discussing a potential new mechanism of action for the treatment of myasthenia gravis. Sometimes, though, these interviews are over a webcam to ensure the interviewer has my full attention and so they can screen-share information. If I physically have to be on camera, I select a pleasant environment where I do not mind sitting down and taking a break for an hour. Last summer, I did a video interview while sitting outside on my comfy patio sipping on a Sam Adams Summer Ale. That means that when I do these more lucrative paid telephone and webcam interviews, it doesn't feel like work. And I am still getting paid!


An Example Where This Does Not Work

I fulfill all the principles one needs to create a lucrative paid survey side gig. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I encouraged my wife to get into paid survey-taking. But it's probably not possible for her to generate such high income from paid surveys because the aforementioned principles do not apply to her as an anesthesiologist.

    1. She does not see a lot of patients. As an anesthesiologist, she will have scheduled OR cases where even a simple Lap Chole can take an hour or more and where more complicated OR cases can last all day. Many days, she will have 2-3 long cases, so that is only 2-3 patients for that day
    2. She doesn’t treat too many different types of patients. She does general anesthesia and has a fellowship in pediatrics, but other than the pediatric designation, many of her patients are general surgical patients
    3. There are rarely new types of anesthetics. Thus, not many pharma companies would want an opinion on their new products
    4. She does not prescribe any new drugs, since discovering new anesthetics is rare. Her choices of Propofol, Fentanyl, Remifentanil, Versed, etc., have not changed in years
    5. Drug reps definitely don’t have access to the OR (could you imagine?)
    6. She would rather prepare her own food, spend time with the kids, and not spend her free time delving back into something work-related. She's not interested in pharma dinners
    7. She hates doing surveys.

As my wife exemplifies, she is not the right physician to make any significant money with surveys, given her chosen specialty, the nature of her practice, and how she values her time.


In the end, the ability and temperament to get paid well from surveys are nuanced. Fortunately, I chose a specialty and have a practice that is set up where surveyors would love to pay for my opinion. And given how I integrate paid survey work into my life, I don’t see it as work at all. Instead, it's a fun, educational, and time-optimized side gig. This is why I’m killing it to the tune of $30,000 a year.


As a doc, you have valuable knowledge and information. Various companies want that knowledge and are willing to pay you for it. If you're interested in starting a side hustle as a paid survey-taker while also making a difference in the medical field, check out our favorite physician survey companies today!


Are you doing paid surveys? Have you made it as lucrative as I have? Any other insights into how to make online surveys more lucrative? Comment below!