Looking to change medical specialties? There are thousands of physicians who consider it, and many who have successfully transitioned to alternative fields. However, whether you’re already a specialist looking to change fields, or a general practitioner looking to pursue a specialization, it can be a daunting experience.
So, what are the best medical specialties to choose if you go ahead? Unsurprisingly, there are no black-and-white answers. Sure, you could simply search for the highest paid specialty, google ‘what is the easiest doctor to become’, look for the role with the fewest hours, or plump for one of the least stressful medical specialties. But ultimately, the happiest doctors are those who weigh up a range of factors to gain the best overall work/life balance and job satisfaction.
In this guide, we’ll outline a list of medical specialties with the best quality of life from various perspectives to help you make the right choice.
Do physicians change specialties?
In short, yes. But is it easy? Not necessarily. It will likely require a significant sacrifice that may involve repeating residency, building up additional continuing medical education credits, moving location, or taking a pay cut for several years while you retrain.
“Yes, I’ve thought about it, but not realistically so. Brief thoughts due to the hours of busy calls and lost compensation for the hours as an OB-GYN. But not seriously due to the length of training.”OBGYN, US.
However, if you truly want a more satisfying career and are prepared to accept the sacrifices, pursuing a specialty or switching your specialty field can indeed be a reality.
It’s understandable that many physicians put their lack of job satisfaction down to current-day pressures in the healthcare system, hoping the landscape will improve once the sector finally returns to a more stable state in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s always been the case that some physicians have craved change. As far back as 2012, Forbes Magazine1 reported that only 41% of doctors would choose the same specialty again, given the option. In our more recent Sermo survey of 1,500 physicians, 35% said they have considered switching to another specialty.
10 best medical specialties
When looking for a change of direction, you’ll want to weigh all the pros and cons thoroughly. To make a viable shortlist of options and work towards the best lifestyle, medical specialties can be evaluated from several perspectives, such as pay, workload, stress, and the impacts on your family life. To help you, we’ve made this physician’s guide to the ten best medical specialties based on some of the most popular criteria.
Highest Paying Medical Specialty: Surgery
In our survey, only 6% considered salary to be the most important part of their career, 46% said they felt their current compensation is fair, and just 9% said earning potential was a factor in their specialty choice. However, it may be an important consideration after your retraining costs because most surgeons are highly paid. Inspira Advantage recently ranked neurosurgeons as the top earners, with the next most lucrative surgery specialties being:
- Plastic surgery
“I got fed up with being a GP (paperwork, expenses, running an office, etc.), and I transitioned to do some surgical assisting – best decision of my life!”GP, U.S.
The happiest medical specialty: Family medicine
Because family doctors are in regular contact with patients and focused on community care, their jobs are incredibly fulfilling. In a review of overall physician happiness, Nature.com2 listed family medicine as one of the happiest doctor specialties. Contributing factors likely include:
- Normal work hours.
- Ability to join an established office or set up your own medical practice for increased flexibility.
Medical specialty with the least paperwork: Immunology
Immunologists spend just 14.6 hours per week on paperwork and administrative tasks, according to Med School Insiders3. 47% of doctors in our survey said that patient interaction was the reason they chose their current specialty. So if you’re looking to ditch laborious report writing in favor of more patient time, this could be a great choice. An alternative option is dermatology, which also involves lower-than-average admin time and regularly makes it onto lists of the happiest medical specialties.
Easiest doctor to become: General practitioner
While this is not technically a specialty, there’s little argument that becoming a GP takes less time and training. But suppose you’re set on looking for a new or alternative specialty that’s more involved than general medicine while ensuring the easiest course and workload. In that case, you might find this list from Collegevine4 helpful. They rank the easiest specialties based on the average step 1 score and number of publications:
- Physical Medicine/Rehabilitation
Best work/life balance: Dermatology
Work/life balance was voted the most important career aspect by 29% of physicians in our survey. Because they typically work a fixed number of office hours, dermatologists develop better long-term relationships with their patients and with their external friends and family. Most are well-paid and have plenty of relaxation time outside of work. So it’s little wonder dermatology ranks among the happiest doctor specialties for work/life balance.
Most satisfying medical specialty: Pediatrics
58% of the physicians in our survey said helping patients was the most important aspect of their job. And what could be more satisfying than taking charge of the physical, emotional, and social development of infants and children? In their study of the happiest doctors, Nature.com observed that pediatric physicians take great pride in their work and experience some of the highest levels of overall fulfillment, despite generally being considered underpaid. 84% of respondents in our survey said they felt some fields are underpaid, and pediatrics is regularly listed as one of them:
“Primary care and pediatrics are underpaid. Some specialties are overpaid.”Cardiology, U.S.
Most flexible medical specialty: Psychiatry
While many still choose to operate clinic-based services, psychiatrists are among only a few physicians that can work remotely. This gives them the highest degree of flexibility in their work hours – a factor deemed important by 11% of survey respondents. Being able to run their practice virtually also means psychiatrists can take on patients over a much wider geographical area.
Lowest patient contact time: Pathology
While all doctors are dedicated to patient health and well-being, not all physicians enjoy – nor are suited to – a high degree of patient contact. Pathology is one of the best medical specialties for introverts who have a passion for medicine but no desire to be directly patient-facing. If this is a primary consideration for you, other alternatives include anesthesiology and radiology.
Happiest marriages: Otolaryngology
This may seem like a strange consideration. However, with many of the best doctors spending so much time working or on-call, it’s not unheard of for personal lives to take a hit. If this is a factor for you as you plan your career change, you may be interested to know that the 2022 Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report found head and neck specialists most likely to report happy home lives and marriages.
Discover opportunities to grow with Sermo
In our survey, 16% of physicians highlighted opportunities to grow as the primary reason they selected their current field. However, being one of the best doctors isn’t just about training and education. The extent of your medical network and your reputation as a physician are also essential to your career progression.
Setting up an account with Sermo connects you with over 1 million other healthcare professionals across 150 countries. Built by physicians, for physicians, our platform fosters impactful peer-to-peer collaboration where you can seek advice, take part in discussions about the best medical specialties, sign up for paid physician surveys or consider a physician side hustle, and generally bolster your experience so you can plan your next career move with confidence.
Doctors can join for free today