Context: A number of forces have changed the practice of medicine in the past decade. Evidence suggests that physicians are becoming less satisfied in this environment.
Objectives: To describe changes in career satisfaction in a large, nationally representative sample of physicians and to examine market and practice factors associated with changes in physician satisfaction.
Design and setting: Data were collected from the first 3 rounds of the Community Tracking Study (CTS) Physician Survey, a series of nationally representative telephone surveys of physicians in 60 US sites conducted in 1996-1997 (round 1: 12 385 respondents; 65% response rate), 1998-1999 (round 2: 12 280 respondents; 61% response rate), and 2000-2001 (round 3: 12 389 respondents; 59% response rate) for the Center for Studying Health System Change. The second and third rounds of the survey included physicians sampled in the previous round, as well as new physicians.
Participants: Primary care and specialist physicians who spent at least 20 hours per week in direct patient care activities.
Main outcome measures: Changes in physicians' overall satisfaction with their career and the proportion of dissatisfied physicians in particular sites.
Results: Physician satisfaction levels declined marginally between 1997 and 2001, with most of the decline occurring between 1997 and 1999. Among primary care physicians, 42.4% were very satisfied in 1997, as were 43.3% of specialists, compared with 38.5% and 41.4%, respectively, in 2001. There were nearly equal increases in those who reported that they were somewhat satisfied. Overall means mask significant differences across the 60 sites. Among 12 sites randomly selected for more intensive study, the proportion of respondents who were somewhat or very dissatisfied ranged from 8.8% of physicians in Lansing, Mich (1999), to 34.2% in Miami, Fla (1997). Between 1997 and 1999, 25.6% of primary care physicians reported decreased satisfaction and 18.1% reported improved satisfaction, while approximately equal percentages reported increased (19.8%) and decreased (20.4%) satisfaction between 1999-2001. Findings were similar for specialist physicians. In multivariable models, the strongest and most consistent predictors of change in satisfaction were changes in measures of clinical autonomy, including increases in hours worked and physicians' ability to obtain services for their patients. Changes in exposure to managed care were weakly related to changes in satisfaction.
Conclusions: Our findings demonstrate that overall physician satisfaction levels over this time period did not change dramatically. In addition, satisfaction and changes in satisfaction vary greatly among sites. Rather than declining income, threats to physicians' autonomy, to their ability to manage their day-to-day patient interactions and their time, and to their ability to provide high-quality care are most strongly associated with changes in satisfaction.