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Why Health is the Most Lucrative Major for Students in the South

Feb 20, 2015 | By Maryalene LaPonsie

Student Doctors

If you want to be one of the highest paid workers in the South, health care might be the field for you. Rural communities and a growing population are two of the forces driving up demand - and wages - for medical professionals throughout the region.

In fact, an analysis of government data by OnlineColleges.com found four of the five top paying occupations in the Southeast and Southwest are held by those with medical degrees, and the experts in the field say it's not unusual for new doctors to be courted with dozens of job solicitations and even offers to pay off their student loans.

OnlineColleges.com used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to compare mean wages with employment per 1,000 jobs. If you're a student looking for a hot new career, the following five occupations (as classified by the BLS) may offer the best income potential and employment availability in the South:

  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Surgeons
  • Family and General Practitioners
  • Anesthesiologists
  • Chief Executive Officers

Why Are Doctors in Demand in the South?

Here are a couple of reasons that experts in the field give for why health care professionals are so well-compensated and so highly sought after in the South.

Insurance Infrastructure

John Hawkins works out of Atlanta as a Senior Vice President for Merritt Hawkins, a physician placement firm. He says the structure of health insurance plans in the South plays a big role in doctor compensation.

"They don't have the [number of] HMOs that they have in the Northeast," Hawkins says, noting reimbursements from health maintenance organizations can be lower than what's provided through other types of policies.

Those reimbursements are particularly important to physicians who work in their own practice rather than as an employee of a hospital or health care group. According to Hawkins, the South has a greater proportion of independent practitioners compared to other regions, with Texas having the most of any state. (See online colleges in Texas.) For those doctors, their income may be tied more directly to insurance payments, and greater reimbursements mean more money in their pocket.

It doesn't hurt either that overhead costs can be significantly less in the South than elsewhere in the country. Jason Farr, the regional vice president of recruiting of the South region for The Medicus Firm, a physician and healthcare staffing firm, says lower building and operations costs can benefit both independent practitioners and employed professionals.

"Savings [from overhead] can sometimes be passed on in the form of physician compensation or other incentives when needed to secure the right physician," says Farr.


"Texas alone has 630 hospitals, for a total of 83,000 beds, all competing for physicians. Twenty-seven percent of those are in rural areas and meanwhile, the population of Texas is growing at twice the national average. This makes for a highly competitive physician search market." – Jason Farr, Regional Vice President for The Medicus Firm


Rural Communities and a Growing Population

The rural nature of many Southern states is another reason physicians may be able to command high wages. It's something Trish Moody, a Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with the orthopedics practice OrthoCarolina, sees in rural sections of North Carolina. (See online colleges in North Carolina).

"There are a lot more rural areas where health care is challenging," she says. "There are less providers per person."

Hawkins adds it's a challenge seen across the entire Southeastern region. To bring in health care providers, he says it's not uncommon for practices to cover their physicians' student loans, which can easily top $150,000. "It's a huge incentive in rural areas," Hawkins explains.

While paying off triple-digit student loans might seem like an expensive proposition for health care groups, Hawkins says it has potential for a big pay-off in terms of employee retention. The incentives often require physicians to sign a contract and remain at their job for a specific period, such as five years. However, after three years, professionals may feel like part of the community, and Hawkins reports approximately 60 percent of physicians will stay on even after their contract expires.

Beyond having rural communities, some Southern states are growing at significant rates which are further fueling physician demand and driving up wages.

"Texas alone has 630 hospitals, for a total of 83,000 beds, all competing for physicians," says Farr. "Twenty-seven percent of those are in rural areas and meanwhile, the population of Texas is growing at twice the national average. This makes for a highly competitive physician search market."

The 5 Top-Paying Jobs in the South

For those wondering what it might take to get a top-paying job in the South, here are the basics of the five occupations at the top of the OnlineColleges.com analysis.


Physicians

#1 - Physicians and Surgeons

  • Average annual wage: $240,510
  • Education requirement: 4 years of undergraduate studies, 4 years of medical school and 3-8 years of internship or residency programs.
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the South: 3.2

According to the OnlineColleges.com analysis, the top paying job in the South belongs to this broad category of physicians and surgeons. These professionals don't necessarily fall into a category such as that of internists or family practitioners. Individuals in this group include cardiologists, gastroenterologists and other specialty physicians, according to the BLS.

For those who do choose to work in the South, the region has more to offer than simply a good income. Innovative, progressive and invested are a few of the words Dr. Cecilia Lacayo uses to describe the Southern attitudes she's experienced during her 20 years as a wellness physician in Boca Raton, where she currently works with Wellness & Hormone Centers of America.

"States are encouraging investments into healthcare," Lacayo says. "There are great opportunities. The future of the healthcare business is here."


"The future of the healthcare business is here."
 - Dr. Cecilia Lacayo, wellness physician in Boca Raton, Florida


Surgeons

#2 - Surgeons

  • Average annual wage: $238,510
  • Education requirement: 4 years of undergraduate studies, 4 years of medical school and 3-8 years of internship or residency programs.
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the South: 0.6

Surgeons in the South may practice general surgery or work exclusively in a specialty such as orthopedic, neurological, cardiovascular or reconstructive surgery, according to the BLS. Moody notes many Southern states are home to large hospital systems which drive demand for surgeons of all types.

However, the number of available surgeons has been declining during the past few decades, and rural Southern communities may be particularly susceptible to shortages.

A 2008 study published in the Archives of Surgery found the number of general surgeons per 100,000 people nationwide had dropped 25.91 percent in the preceding 25 years. While urban areas face shortages of surgeons as well, the problem is more pronounced in rural communities. That may be one reason hospitals and other providers are willing to pay surgeons so well.


Pediatrician

#3 - Family and General Practitioners

  • Average annual wage: $210,600
  • Education requirement: 4 years of undergraduate studies, 4 years of medical school and 3-8 years of internship or residency programs.
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the South: 1.8

Family and general practitioners are the first line of defense when it comes to meeting the medical needs of Southern families. The BLS reports that these professionals are the ones who see patients for minor illnesses and help manage chronic ailments.

While family and general practitioners are often employed by medical groups, some choose to be self-employed. The 2014 Survey of America's Physicians, issued by The Physicians Foundation, found 35 percent of physicians surveyed say they are independent practice owners. That number represents physicians nationwide, and Hawkins says independent practices are more common in the South than in other regions.

When it comes to job opportunities, no physician may be quite in demand like a family and general practitioner. The Merritt Hawkins' 2014 Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruiting Incentives found family doctors were the most recruited physicians nationwide. What's more, it was the eighth straight time the specialty had topped the list.


Anesthesiologists

#4 - Anesthesiologists

  • Average annual wage: $245,750
  • Education requirement: 4 years of undergraduate studies, 4 years of medical school and 3-8 years of internship or residency programs.
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the South: 0.4

Anesthesiologists work closely with physicians and surgeons to manage pain during and after certain procedures. They may administer medications to produce total anesthesia during major surgery or localize pain relief to a specific area, such as with the use of epidural anesthesia during childbirth, according to the BLS.

At one time, there were serious concerns about a shortage of anesthesiologists nationwide. However, the supply of physicians working in this specialty may finally be meeting demand. So much so that anesthesiologists didn't even make an appearance on the list of top 20 requested specialties and practice areas listed in the 2014 Merritt Hawkins review.

Still, anesthesiologists continue to be high-paid professionals in the South.


CEO

#5 - Chief Executives

  • Average annual wage: $205,970
  • Education requirement: Typically a Bachelor's degree, followed by extensive work experience.
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the South: 3.6

Chief executives are professionals employed by businesses in a leadership capacity. They may do everything from map out long term strategies to create policies for day-to-day operations, states the BLS. While this occupation is not specific to the medical industry, even here, health care is making its mark.

For example, in 2011, Sam Jones co-founded eScribe to help physicians fill in electronic health records. With offices in Charleston, South Carolina, Jones says the South was a natural place to locate the business. (See online colleges in South Carolina).

"The South is home to some of the nation's best colleges and universities and hard-working students," he explains. "Because nearly all of [our] workforce is comprised of current undergraduates and recent post-grads pursing clinical careers, the South was a convenient location to grow eScribe."

MedeAnalytics, a healthcare analytics solutions firm, relocated some of their operations to Texas and found similar benefits.

"Texas has advanced health care facilities," says Lou Tseng, Associate Vice President of Big Data Services for MedeAnalytics. "There are many schools offering different levels of healthcare related degrees and certification such as biostatistics, nursing, medical billing and coding. These programs provided an abundant workforce supply to Mede."

The "Perfect" Place to Work

Health care can be a smart career path regardless of the region. A recent survey from Merritt Hawkins found 62 percent of final-year medical residents in 2014 received 50 or more job solicitations. Nearly half reported receiving 100 or more solicitations.

The favorable job market might be here to stay, given the emphasis on health care in the U.S. A 2012 study from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce reports health care makes up 18 percent of the U.S. economy, a rate twice that found in other countries, and many Southern states are expected to add significantly to their health care workforce from 2010 to 2020. The following are a few of the Southern states expected to add the most jobs in coming years, according to the center.

  • Texas: 438,710 jobs
  • Florida: 330,920 jobs
  • North Carolina: 190,770 jobs
  • Georgia: 153,220 jobs

However, for people like Moody, the South holds more than simply the promise of jobs and money. "[The region] has lots of great things to offer," she explains. "We have beaches and mountains. It's the perfect place to come to work."


Sources:

1. Interview with Dr. Cecilia Lacayo, Wellness Physician at Wellness & Hormone Centers of America
2. Interview with John Hawkins, Senior Vice President with Merritt Hawkins
3. Interview with Jason Farr, Regional Vice President of Recruiting, South Region, The Medicus Firm
4. Interview with Sam Jones, COO for eScribe
5. Interview with Trish Moody, CNPC at OrthoCarolina
6. Interview with Lou Tseng, Associate Vice President of Big Data Services for MedeAnalytics
7. Anthony Carnevale et al, Healthcare, Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, June 21, 2012 https://cew.georgetown.edu/report/healthcare/
8. A longitudinal analysis of the general surgery workforce in the United States, 1981-2005, Archives of Surgery, 2008, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18427021
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Physicians and Surgeons, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm
10. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/
11. 2014 Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruiting Incentives, Merritt Hawkins, http://www.merritthawkins.com/uploadedFiles/MerrittHawkings/Surveys/mha2014incensurvey.pdf
12. 2014 Survey of America's Physicians, The Physicians Foundation, http://www.physiciansfoundation.org/uploads/default/2014_Physicians_Foundation_Biennial_Physician_Survey_Report.pdf