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S is for Surgeon

by Nick Dobbins
December 2016

About Surgeons

Employment is flat or even contracting in many industries in Minnesota’s ever-shifting labor market. The medical field, however, is experiencing strong employment growth, buoyed at least in part by the aging baby boomers. Within the medical and social services industry group, there are a wide range of occupations with projected 10 year employment growth. These range from home health aides up through nurses and, at the top of the earnings ladder, highly trained physicians including surgeons.

Surgeons, along with other doctors, are among the most highly-educated and well-compensated workers in Minnesota and the country as a whole. In fact, medical professionals of various stripes make up the nine highest-paid professions in America by annual mean wage, and Surgeons come in at number two, just behind Anesthesiologists as of the second quarter 2015. Chief Executives, coming in at number 10 on the list, is the highest-paid occupation in the country not to require a post-graduate medical degree.

Table 1. U.S. Occupational Employment and Wages by Annual Mean Wage



Mean Wage







Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons



Obstetricians and Gynecologists






Physicians and Surgeons, All Other



Internists, General






Family and General Practitioners



Chief Executives



Source: National Occupational Employment and Wage (OES) Estimates, May 2015 http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

Requiring four years of undergraduate education followed by four more years of doctoral studies and anywhere from three to eight years of residency, usually on the higher end of that scale for surgeons, doctors in general and surgeons in particular invest more time, money, and effort in their training than almost any other occupation in the country. And there is good reason for the occupation to require such a large time investment. The job of a surgeon is both complex and vitally important. They act as supervisors for a team of nurses and assistants, they examine patients, analyze medical histories, and at the end of the process, perform operations on living people, in situations that are very often literally life-or-death. Their average workday can involve higher stakes than many of us will ever face in our careers, as a single mistake could easily end up costing patients their lives. With this level of stress, it’s also no surprise that surgeons face higher rates of alcoholism than the general population1 and consider suicide at a higher rate.2

As Table 2 illustrates, just under 1,300 total surgeons worked in Minnesota as of the first quarter of 2016. Given the highly specialized nature of their work and their relative rarity it is unsurprising that surgeons are highly concentrated in the Twin Cities, while general medical practitioners and working Minnesotans in general are more evenly spread around the state. Unlike, for example, for accountants or hairdressers, people who need the services of a surgeon are often more willing to travel to a population center to receive that specialized, and often vitally important, care.

Table 2. Geographic Distribution of Surgeons in Minnesota



Minnesota (Statewide)


Seven County Met Area


Central Minnesota


Southeast Minnesota


Northwest Minnesota


Northeast Minnesota


Southwest Minnesota


Source: Minnesota Occupational Employment and Wage estimates, First Quarter 2016

https://apps.deed.state.mn.us/lmi/projections/detail.asp?code=291067&geog=2709CENT00Central Minnesota

Advances in the Field

Although surgeons are among the most thoroughly trained, highly specialized, and best-paid workers in the country, as in other fields there is still always room for improvement. In recent years improvement in the operating room seems to be coming more and more from a place few would have expected it just a few years ago: automated technology.

While blue-collar workers, such as those in the manufacturing industry, have been losing jobs to automation for decades, people long assumed that more complex and highly-paid occupations that require years of schooling, such as pharmacists, financial analysts, and surgeons, were unlikely to lose much if any of the market to robotic competition. However, these exact occupations are already starting to feel the pressure from machines that can do at least some of their jobs more cheaply and more effectively than the professionals themselves. Robot-assisted surgery has been in place in our hospitals for years, and tests are currently being conducted with entirely autonomous robotic surgeons that can function better than humans at some aspects of the job. For example, while procedures generally take longer with robots holding the knife, automated surgeons can make smaller, more precise cuts and completely eliminate some human flaws such as hand tremors that may complicate delicate procedures.

What a surgeon’s job will entail in the future is an open question. But at this point there is little doubt that it will be different than it is now and will include more and more technology.

1 “Prevalence of Alcohol Use Disorders among American Surgeons,” Oreskovich et al, Archives of Surgery, February 2012 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22351913

2 “Suicidal Ideation among American Surgeons” Shanafelt et al, Archives of Surgery, January 2011 http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamasurgery/fullarticle/406577

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