How do work relative value unit (wRVU) compensation rates vary across medical and surgical specialties?
In this cross-sectional study, most specialties had wRVU compensation rates between 0.035 and 0.045 wRVUs/min. The mean compensation rate for surgical specialties was 7.2% higher than for medical specialties, a difference that was not statistically significant.
Factors outside of the wRVU system, such as payer mix and work hours, could be targeted if narrowing the difference in compensation across specialties is desired.
The work relative value units (wRVUs) for a physician service can be conceptualized as the amount of time spent by the physician multiplied by a compensation rate (wRVUs/min). Disproportionately high compensation rates assigned to procedures have been blamed for pay differences across specialties, but to our knowledge, a comprehensive assessment is lacking.
To assess how compensation rates built into work RVUs contribute to differences in physician compensation across specialties.
Design, Setting, and Participants
This cross-sectional analysis examined 2017 Part B fee-for-service Medicare data. The data were analyzed from May 1 to May 30, 2019.
Main Outcomes and Measures
A specialty-wide compensation rate (wRVUs/min) was generated for 42 medical and surgical specialties defined as the sum of wRVUs for all billed current procedural terminology codes divided by the presumed time to perform those services. This measure accounted for the volume and diversity of services each specialty provides. Sensitivity analyses were performed to assess the association of errors in wRVU time estimates with average compensation rates.
The final sample included 42 specialties and 6587 distinct Current Procedual Terminology (CPT) codes. The number of CPT codes attributed to a specialty ranged from 575 (medical oncology) to 4346 (general surgery). Compensation rates ranged from 0.029 wRVUs/min (pathology) to 0.057 wRVUs/min (emergency medicine). Most specialties (34/42 [81.0%]) had compensation rates between 0.035 and 0.045 wRVUs/min. The mean compensation rate for surgical specialties was 7.2% higher than for medical specialties, a difference that was not statistically significant. This narrow range reflects the fact that most specialties had more than 60% of time allocated to activities outside the intraservice period. Assuming that time values for surgical procedures are significantly overestimated increased the difference in average compensation between surgical and medical specialties to 23.4%.
Conclusions and Relevance
Compensation rates assumed in wRVU valuations are small contributors to differences in physician compensation. Factors outside of the wRVU system, such as payer mix and work hours, could be targeted if narrowing the difference in compensation across specialties is desired.