By Joe Dyton, WCI Contributor
Most jobs in the medical field come with some level of stress. Regardless of the specialty, a physician has someone’s health—or even life—in their hands at any given time. That thought alone can make the job stressful. Throw in the long hours and the fact that, at times, there aren’t enough physicians to treat a growing number of patients, and it’s no wonder that people consider leaving the profession altogether.
While medical specialties aren’t without stress, there are some fields that are a little more easygoing than others. If you’re considering a medical career and its high-earning potential and you need to pick a specialty or you're a current physician who wants to switch fields, Medscape has released its Physician Burnout & Depression Report 2022. Here’s a look at some of the most and least stressful medical specialties, according to that survey.
Least Stressful Medical Specialties
Again, a profession where someone’s health is at the mercy of another person’s job performance won’t be 100% stressless. Fortunately, the medical field offers an array of specialties that range all across the stress level meter. Here are some of the less stressful medical specialties.
The psychiatry field often pays well, and the hours are not as abundant as in other medical specialties. As more focus is being put on mental health, psychiatrists are in an in-demand profession, minimizing worries about job security. Additionally, this field is one of the few in the medical field that can be done virtually. With that in mind, a psychiatrist has the flexibility to treat patients from their own home, their practice, or a combination of the two. All of it offers the opportunity for a strong work-life balance.
Similar to psychiatry, the dermatology field typically offers a set number of office hours to treat patients. The less emergency-based atmosphere provides dermatologists an opportunity to form a stronger connection with their patients. Additionally, dermatologists also have high earning potential (an average of $438,000 per year in Medscape's latest survey), and if you combine that with good work-life balance, dermatology is one of the happiest medical specialties.
The plastic surgery field is constantly evolving, allowing physicians to adapt to new strategies and keeping their work fresh. Many plastic surgeons can also set up their practices around their schedule and lifestyle. Their work also helps patients feel either safer, better about themselves, or sometimes both. According to Medscape, plastic surgeons also make the most of any medical specialty, and that surely helps the stress level for many.
An eye specialist’s work is wide-ranging—often split between seeing patients in their office and performing surgery. The diversity in their work helps create work-life balance. Additionally, a lot of ophthalmologists work in a practice with other physicians, so they aren’t on their own to deal with eye-related emergencies. Meanwhile, according to the Medscape data, an ophthalmologist earns an average salary of $417,000, which is in the top half of all specialties.
The low burnout rate among orthopedic surgeons is likely due to the interesting challenges their profession presents. They see their share of trauma-related care while also treating patients who seek elective reconstructive procedures. The fact that a lot of work for orthopedic surgeons involves helping patients regain their mobility instead of life-and-death situations makes it easy to understand why this is one of the happiest medical specialties.
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Most Stressful Medical Specialties
It’s understandable why there are a number of incredibly stressful medical specialties. In some cases, physicians have minutes to make life-saving decisions for their patients. Meanwhile, some specialties require a lot of a physician’s time, making it nearly impossible to have any semblance of a work-life balance. The ongoing pressure that comes from working in the following specialties is also part of what makes them among the most stressful.
Any profession with the word “emergency” in it is bound to come with stress, and emergency medicine is no exception. Stress comes from a number of different angles for physicians—not knowing what ailments they will treat on a given day; long hours that come on nights, weekends, and holidays; and needing to move along from patient to patient in a hurry. Patients expect to be seen and treated quickly, but being short on staff often makes that impossible. That makes emergency medicine an even more stressful medical specialty.
Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN)
Working in obstetrics and gynecology can bring physicians plenty of joy as they bring new lives into the world. Stressful medical situations can quickly overshadow that joy, however. Similar to emergency medicine, no day in obstetrics and gynecology is the same. A physician could spend a good portion of their week treating patients in their office before being on call for 24 hours. They’re also responsible for delivering babies, which they might have to do at a moment’s notice. There’s also the pressure that comes from having to perform live-saving procedures—for the baby, mother, or sometimes both. Plus, there's the constant worry of potentially being sued for malpractice. “Bad baby cases” have some of the highest payouts in medicine.
Medscape revealed a 46% burnout rate among neurologists in its 2022 survey. The rate dropped a bit from 2020 when it was 50%, but the stresses of this specialty remain the same. Neurological ailments are severe, and there often aren’t many treatment options available to help patients. This sometimes helpless feeling combined with the long hours neurologists can work—almost 56 hours a week on average—can lead to an unhealthy amount of stress and eventual burnout.
Urologists’ burnout rate has also fallen a bit from Medscape’s 2020 report where it led all medical specialties at 54%—compare that to 2022 where the 48% figure was more in the middle of the pack. Urology remains one of the more stressful medical specialties, however. In fact, the Occupational Information Network, a part of the Department of Labor, ranked urology as the most stressful job in the US. The shortage of physicians combined with the care delays the pandemic caused has created greater demand for appointments and, in turn, longer wait times. As urologists retire, the physician shortage will only get worse—the decrease in the urology workforce is expected to continue to decrease in the US through 2060, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Critical care physician burnout rate (56%) was only second to Emergency Medicine in Medscape’s 2022 report. Anytime a patient is admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), it’s stressful for physicians as well as the patient and their loved ones. ICU physicians are under immense pressure to save their patients in an environment where they see people die almost every day. Being around death so often can weigh on even the strongest and most focused medical minds. Additionally, ICU physicians were under tremendous stress prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the aftermath has left critical care units with fewer physicians on hand, creating even more pressure.
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The medical profession is one of the few where stress is all but guaranteed. If you're thinking of becoming a physician or changing specialties, ponder how much stress you’re willing to endure on a daily basis. You’ll also have to weigh the potential stress against other factors. If you want to pursue a high-paying medical specialty that’s stressful, which is more important to you: the high salary or maintaining a reasonable amount of peace of mind? The same goes for your professional interest—if your dream field is one of the most stressful ones listed here, are you willing to endure high-stress levels to work in your desired specialty?
Stress levels are just one factor to keep in mind when deciding on a medical specialty. Be sure to weigh it along with others, such as salary, life-work balance, demand for physicians, and career growth potential as you make your choice.
Do you agree with these rankings? If you had to do it over again, would you choose your specialty based on the stress (or lack thereof) that comes with the job? Is making more money worth more stress? Comment below.