Medical Specialties With The Best Quality Of Life (Who Are The Happiest Doctors?) [2021]

Going into med, with all the years of schooling and the big financial hole it causes, you want to have some reassurance that it’s all going to be worth it.

“Will I be happy in this job?” we ask ourselves. “What kind of doctor will I best enjoy being?”

Despite there being no real way of knowing, there is some data that can help.

What medical specialities have the best quality of life?

Family medicine, dermatology, psychiatry and pathology are the most recommended. Each seems to offer the right balance when it comes to free time, money and a balanced social life. But the answer is very subjective. It’s based on what each doctor values.

And if that sounds vague, that’s because it is! But hopefully this article can help shed a bit more light.

What Factors Make Up Medical Specialities With “The Best Quality Of Life”?

Here are some of the main things doctors value when it comes to measuring the quality of their lives:

  • Reasonable working hours
  • The ability to spend time with their families
  • Financial earnings
  • Community and social life
  • Hobbies and interests
  • The culture (and conditions) of the country they work

Medical specialties vary a lot in terms of what they offer each individual. While different doctors value different things.

That’s why it’s hard to say, with any precision, what the best specialties are in terms of “quality of life”.

What’s Meaningful To Me (As A Med Student)

Personally, as someone older than your average person coming into a healthcare career, I find my priorities – and the medical specialty that most appeals – changes often.

Some days I feel like I’d rather choose a fast-paced and stressful specialty over something typically deemed “life-style friendly”.

But then, especially after the grind of a series of brutal exams takes it toll, I begin thinking whether I wouldn’t just be happier in something more low-key (if that exists). Or at least something that gives me enough time and money to explore other interests outside of medicine.

All this kind of highlights the point though; what exactly makes a specialism (especially those listed above; family med, dermatology, psychiatry etc.) a good lifestyle choice?

Let’s find out…

Who Are The Happiest Doctors? (According To The Data)

Perhaps the best place to start is by looking at what the data says.

According to Medscape/WebMD’s 2012 Physician Lifestyle Report, the happiest doctors are as follows:

  • Rheumatologists
  • Dermatologists
  • Urologists
  • Opthalmologists
  • Emergency Medicine Doctors

Note that this report was conducted on a five-point scale that asked those surveyed a series of questions based on their lives both in and outside work.

Key factors making up their decision included pay, general health, vacation time, marital status, social media use and religion. The results of this survey is also US-specific.

Related: Can Doctors Take Vacations? (Yes, More Than Med Students!)

Interestingly, the same report lists the following specialties as the worst in terms of individual happiness:

  • Neurologists
  • Gastroenterologists
  • Internal Medicine Doctors

This report is available here.

Is Dermatology The Best Speciality?

What’s intriguing from these results, although they’re far from comprehensive, is dermatology coming out on top.

Coincidentally, this is also the specialty my own GP in the UK recommended I look into when I told him about my own plans to study medicine.

His reason being…

”There are no emergency calls and because you never really cure a skin rash, you have some very reliable work.”

Obviously you’ll find doctors in either of the best or worst categories with completely opposite viewpoints. Including dermatologists too I imagine!

Why Do These Medical Specialities Provide The Best Quality Life?

In the hopes of formulating some kind of response based on the data from this report though, it looks like the following things factor strongly in the discussion of a doctors’ ”happiness”:

  • Personal health: regular exercise, sports and hobbies
  • Community: volunteering opportunities or pro bono work
  • Marital status: married or long-term relationships over divorced or single
  • No debt: coupled with good saving potential

So maybe it’s right to assume that those doctors ticking these boxes, regardless of their specialty, would be the most happiest.

And that it doesn’t exactly matter which specialty you choose.

What Medical Specialties Have The Best Hours?

Many doctors say it’s time they have available outside of work that they value the most.

Obviously, those specialties that have scope for lucrative part-time work might work here. While those that allow flexibility when it comes to picking and choosing a schedule might be good choices too.

Returning back to the question, this could be why areas like family medicine, dermatology, psychiatry and pathology etc, are deemed more favorable “lifestyle choices”.

It’s rare specialty doctors in these fields will be asked to work unsuitable hours (weekends, nights etc). While medical emergencies, those that usually require immediate patient contact, can largely be avoided too.

What Does The Data Say?

In terms of hard data, there’s a report from 2015 from physician network Doximity.

The report, which surveyed over 90,000 physicians, ranks medical specialties in terms of schedule flexibility and favorable working hours.

The specialties that come out on top are:

  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Dermatology
  • Radiation Oncology
  • Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Emergency Medicine

While the worst include:

  • Neurology
  • Anaesthesiology
  • Obstetrics and Gynaecology

Again this study is also based on US-respondents.

It shouldn’t be taken as evidence of how certain specialties might be in the country you plan on working.

Do Most Doctors Have A Good Work-Life Balance?

There is conflicting information when it comes whether the average doctor has a good work-life balance or not.

Like “quality of life” specialties, the answer can change depending on who you ask. Two doctors of the same specialty in the same region (and even country) might give you two entirely different answers.

As a medical student, I have the unique opportunity of straddling the healthcare systems of two European countries.

The first is Bulgaria, my country of study, the second is the UK (where I was born and raised).

Based on my experiences communicating with doctors in both countries, it seems, on most days, neither country is a great option for doctors seeking to strike a healthy work-life balance.

UK doctors argue they work all the hours under the sun for very low pay.

While Bulgarian doctors also make similar assertions.

The issue answering the question then? These comparisons are anecdotal at best.

But they’re also limited by these doctors own comparisons and (but not in all cases) their limited experience working in other countries.

Why It’s Difficult To Measure Medical Specialisms By Work-Life Balance

Here are the big problems estimating work-life balance across different medical specialties:

  • Pay: this is relevant to the living expenses of the country. While it’s fairly easy to find data on which countries pay their doctors the best, very rarely do these reports factor in average living costs like food, housing, tax and everything else.
  • Training: gathering experience working in one country might open more doors – potentially ones that offer a better work-life balance – than others. For example UK doctors who wish to go to Australia (a common choice). This option isn’t as easy for a doctor training in a less reputable country where more barriers to entry exist.
  • Life: the choices each individual makes in life; from marriage, to children, to investments etc, are intrinsically unique. There is no average case here. Age factors in massively too – what I might consider a good work-life balance at 34 could be very different to a colleague ten years younger than me!

The main point is the data (just like that in the surveys and reports mentioned earlier) is only one piece of the picture.

There are plenty of doctors, in each of these “best” and “worst” work-life specialties, that either hate or love their jobs.

Final Thoughts: Medical Specialties With The Best Work-Life Balance/Quality Of Life

If there’s anything at all to come out of this article, it should be this…

For the most part? Doctors are busy people with very demanding jobs.

Compared to jobs where people aren’t responsible for another human’s life, it’s one with definite stressors.

But what the data ultimately suggests is:

  • You definitely can have a healthy work-life balance as a doctor
  • Some specialisms might be better choices than others in offering that

Find a speciality with a flexible schedule, high pay and shorter hours, and you’ll have a better shot.


If you enjoyed reading this article, you might find the following interesting:

Image Credit: Jonathan Borba at Pexels