The Growing Executive-Physician Wage Gap in Major US Nonprofit Hospitals and Burden of Nonclinical Workers on the US Healthcare System

Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2018 Oct;476(10):1910-1919. doi: 10.1097/CORR.0000000000000394.


Background: In an era of increasing healthcare costs, the number and value of nonclinical workers, especially hospital management, has come under increased study. Compensation of hospital executives, especially at major nonprofit medical centers, and the "wage gap" with physicians and clinical staff has been highlighted in the national news. To our knowledge, a systematic analysis of this wage gap and its importance has not been investigated.

Questions/purposes: (1) How do wage trends compare between physicians and executives at major nonprofit medical centers? (2) What are the national trends in the wages and the number of nonclinical workers in the healthcare industry? (3) What do nonclinical workers contribute to the growth in national cost of healthcare wages? (4) How much do wages contribute to the growth of national healthcare costs? (5) What are the trends in healthcare utilization?

Methods: We identified chief executive officer (CEO) compensation and chief financial officer (CFO) compensation at 22 major US nonprofit medical centers, which were selected from the US News & World Report 2016-2017 Hospital Honor Roll list and four health systems with notable orthopaedic departments, using publicly available Internal Revenue Service 990 forms for the years 2005, 2010, and 2015. Trends in executive compensation over time were assessed using Pearson product-moment correlation tests. As institution-specific compensation data is not available, national mean compensation of orthopaedic surgeons, pediatricians, and registered nurses was used as a surrogate. We chose orthopaedic surgeons and pediatricians for analysis because they represent the two ends of the physician-compensation spectrum. US healthcare industry worker numbers and wages from 2005 to 2015 were obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and used to calculate the national cost of healthcare wages. Healthcare utilization trends were assessed using data from the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research, the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, and the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. All data were adjusted for inflation based on 2015 Consumer Price Index.

Results: From 2005 to 2015, the mean major nonprofit medical center CEO compensation increased from USD 1.6 ± 0.9 million to USD 3.1 ± 1.7 million, or a 93% increase (R = 0.112; p = 0.009). The wage gap increased from 3:1 to 5:1 with orthopaedic surgeons, from 7:1 to 12:1 with pediatricians, and from 23:1 to 44:1 with registered nurses. We saw a similar wage-gap trend in CFO compensation. From 2005 to 2015, mean healthcare worker wages increased 8%. Management worker wages increased 14%, nonclinical worker wages increased 7%, and physician salaries increased 10%. The number of healthcare workers rose 20%, from 13 million to 15 million. Management workers accounted for 3% of this growth, nonclinical workers accounted for 27%, and physicians accounted for 5% of the growth. From 2005 to 2015, the national cost-burden of healthcare worker wages grew from USD 663 billion to USD 865 billion (a 30% increase). Nonclinical workers accounted for 27% of this growth, management workers accounted for 7%, and physicians accounted for 18%. In 2015, there were 10 nonclinical workers for every one physician. The cost of healthcare worker wages accounted for 27% of the growth in national healthcare expenditures. From 2005 to 2015, the number of inpatient stays decreased from 38 million to 36 million (a 5% decrease), the number of physician office visits increased from 964 million to 991 million (a 3% increase), and the number of emergency department visits increased from 115 million to 137 million (a 19% increase).

Conclusions: There is a fast-rising wage gap between the top executives of major nonprofit centers and physicians that reflects the substantial, and growing, cost of nonclinical worker wages to the US healthcare system. However, there does not appear to be a proportionate increase in healthcare utilization. These findings suggest a growing, substantial burden of nonclinical tasks in healthcare. Methods to reduce nonclinical work in healthcare may result in important cost-savings.

Level of evidence level: IV, economic and decision analysis.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Chief Executive Officers, Hospital / economics*
  • Chief Executive Officers, Hospital / trends
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Hospital Costs* / trends
  • Hospitals, Voluntary / economics*
  • Hospitals, Voluntary / trends
  • Humans
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / economics*
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / trends
  • Orthopedic Surgeons / economics*
  • Orthopedic Surgeons / trends
  • Pediatricians / economics*
  • Pediatricians / trends
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Salaries and Fringe Benefits / economics*
  • Salaries and Fringe Benefits / trends
  • Time Factors
  • United States