10 best medical specialties for physicians needing a change of pace

Sermo's list of top medical specialties and subspecialties

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 a specialist looking to change fields, or a general practitioner pursuing a specialization, it can feel daunting. 

So, what is the best way to consider different medical specialties? 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 so you can make the right choice for your goals.

Doctor considering different physician specialties

Do physicians change specialties? 

In short, yes. But it’s not that easy. It requires a significant sacrifice that may involve repeating residency, building up additional continuing medical education credits, moving, or taking a pay cut 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 be done. 

Many healthcare professionals report a lack of job satisfaction due to current-day pressures in the healthcare system. Many healthcare providers hope the landscape will improve once the sector finally returns to a more stable state in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historically, there have always been groups of physicians who 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.  

Why do physicians choose their specialty

Highest Paying Medical Specialty: Surgery

In our survey, only 6% considered salary to be the most important part of their career. And 46% said they felt their current compensation is fair. 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 specialties and surgical subspecialties being:

  • Orthopedic surgeons
  • Plastic surgeons (reconstructive surgery and cosmetic surgery)
  • Urology
  • Cardiac surgeons

General surgery, neurological surgery, and emergency medicine surgical treatment also pay well. You can learn more about increasing your income without switching your specially in our side hustle guide.

“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.
Physician medical specialist speaking with a patient

The happiest medical specialty: Family medicine 

Because family medicine 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:

  • Primary care physicians in family medicine hold normal work hours. 
  • Opportunities to diagnose and treat patients directly and build rapport over time.
  • Ability to join an established office or set up your own medical practice for increased flexibility.

A survey from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) found that certain aspects of family medicine practice—are linked with lower levels of physician burnout. A staggering, 75 percent of surveyed family physicians reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their careers.

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, helping research, diagnose or treat patients’ immune system, 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 medical specialty, there’s little argument that it takes less time and clinical medical training to become a GP. 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: 

  • Psychiatry
  • Physical Medicine/Rehabilitation
  • Pediatrics
  • Pathology

Best work/life balance: Dermatology

Work/life balance was voted the most important career aspect by 29% of medical doctors across all types of medical specialties 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.
doctor saying hi to patient on mobile phone

Most flexible medical specialty: Psychiatry

While many still choose to operate clinic-based services, psychiatrists are among the few physicians specialties 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 help patients with their mental health over a much wider geographical area.

Telemedicine is providing more medical specialists with flexible ways to treat disease whether it’s physical or mental illness.

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 top medical specialties for introverts who have a passion for medicine but do not want to be directly patient-facing. If this is a primary consideration for you, other alternatives include anesthesiology, infectious diseases and radiology. 

pathologist speaking with healthcare profession about best medical specialties to pursue

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. 

How should I choose my medical specialty?

Medical students generally choose their doctor specializations during college. This is when students discover what kind of doctors there are firsthand. But, it’s never too late to gain new clinical knowledge or change your area of expertise.

Ask yourself how you want to treat patients, how you want to treat diseases, and the setting you want to work in. Do you prefer seeing cancer patients, critically ill patients, elderly patients, or simply conducting research?

Maybe you want the fast pace of the emergency room and emergency medicine. Maybe you want something more predictable like clinical medicine, physical medicine, family medicine, occupational medicine or internal medicine. Take in all the factors we mentioned in this article and make the right choose for your goals.

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 medical school 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 doctor-recommended 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

Footnotes

  1. Forbes Magazine
  2. Nature.com
  3. Med School Insiders
  4. Collegevine