4 Reasons Sports Medicine Specialists Make More Money Than Their Colleagues

According to 2009 data from the MGMA Physician and Compensation Production Survey: 2010 Report, orthopedic surgeons specializing in sports medicine make an average annual salary of $599,759, over $100,000 more a year than orthopedic surgeons who specialize in foot and ankle, hand or general orthopedic surgery. Joseph Burkhardt, MD, orthopedic surgeon at Brookside Surgery Center in Battle Creek, Mich., and Nicolas Colyvas, MD, orthopedic and sports medicine surgeon at Post Street Surgery Center in San Francisco, Calif., offer a few reasons why sports medicine is so highly compensated.

1. Procedures can be done relatively rapidly.
According to Dr. Burkhardt, sports medicine procedures can be completed in a shorter period of time for a higher reimbursement. "Joint replacements are lucrative, but a knee replacement will take you 30 minutes, and you still have to do multiple rounds with the patient in the hospital," he says. "That's a lot more time spent that you could have utilized in outpatient surgery."

Dr. Colyvas says the ability to perform minimally invasive surgery has made sports medicine an ideal surgery for the outpatient arena. "Physicians are able to do a lot more surgeries as outpatient, and you have a lot less overhead than you would typically have for other surgical cases."

2. Complications and follow-up visits are minimal.
Most joint replacement surgeries require two to three post-operative visits and several rounds in the hospital, Dr. Burkhardt says. On the other hand, a rotator cuff repair, a fairly common sports medicine surgical procedure, requires only one post-operative visit at the physician's office and no rounds in the hospital. "It just requires much less post-operative care," he says.

Dr. Colyvas adds that patients who elect sports medicine surgery are often younger and healthier than other patients. "They have a specific surgical problem, but they're in better health overall, so they require less in the way of follow up," he says. "

Complications and follow-up visits are also reduced by the success of individual surgeries. According to Dr. Burkhardt, a patient who undergoes sports medicine surgery will return to the level of activity they enjoyed before they were injured. This means less long-term care and less need for follow-up visits or additional procedures. "If you don't have a good to excellent range of motion after surgery, that's not considered a good result," Dr. Burkhardt says. "In other surgeries, that requirement doesn't exist."

3. A younger, more affluent clientele brings private payors.
Because sports medicine tends to attract a younger, more affluent patient population, reimbursements are generally covered by private payors, who usually reimburse at higher rates than Medicare and Medicaid. Other orthopedic specialties may focus more on populations covered by Medicare and Medicaid, who, as Dr. Burkhardt says, " pay you less."

Sports medicine physicians can also make money by marketing themselves through their involvement with professional sports teams, Dr. Colyvas says. Unlike other specialties, sports medicine is involved with a very high-profile profession that will draw affluent patients and increase business in general.

4. Demand for surgery is increasing. Demand for sports medicine surgery will increase as the baby boomers hit retirement age, Dr. Burkhardt says, so even with reduced reimbursements in the next few years, demand will be at an all-time high. Although many sports medicine patients are relatively young — indeed, the common perception is that sports medicine physicians treat mostly professional athletes in their 20's — the average patient age has increased considerably in the last few years.

"The older patients are often patients who are more interested in staying active longer," Dr. Colyvas says. "Sports medicine used to be a younger patient group, but now most sports medicine physicians take patients in their 50s and 60s."

Demand for surgery has also increased as a result of improved technology. As minimally invasive surgery and other technologies have become more widespread, more patients are seeking out sports medicine as an elective surgery, even at a time when overall elective surgeries are down, the physicians say.

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