Every night for the past few weeks, New Yorkers have opened their windows at 7 p.m. to shout, bang, sing, and scream their appreciation for workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis. New York City firefighters — appropriately known as “New York’s Bravest”— have lined up outside local hospitals to applaud doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists. This newfound appreciation for health-care workers is a welcome change.
Over the past few years, as the country has debated health-care availability and costs, some have called the sector’s workers overpaid and underproductive. American physicians, and specialists in particular, have been chastised because they earn more than their European peers. But the pay of U.S. physicians is not out of line with what other highly educated, highly paid Americans earn—in fact, using this metric American physicians are underpaid compared to other countries. The typical American medical specialist earns 1.37 times what the typical high-income earner (people in the 95th to 99th percentile income range) makes in the U.S. The comparable multiple in Europe is 1.45 and 2.11 in Canada. The picture is similar for general practitioners, who earn 92 percent as much as other high-earners in the U.S. and 94 percent of the average for high earners in other developed countries, a figure that reaches 1.41 for Canadian GPs. And as this pandemic demonstrates, frontline health-care workers incur far more direct personal risk than investment bankers, lawyers, or software developers.
American nurses are more highly compensated than many of their foreign counterparts. Respiratory therapists, who run the ventilators used to support failing lungs, made a median salary of $60,280 in 2018. Both nurses and therapists require advanced training and put in long hours, often in lengthy shifts that few other workers would consider. No one can credibly suggest that the nurses and therapists who spend their entire days in contact with the sickest of Covid-19 patients are overpaid.
So, the next time some policy expert—usually someone whose personal experience with the health-care system is confined to trips to their own physician—complains that health-care workers are overpaid, go to your nearest window, open it, and let everyone know whose side you’re on.
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