Medical Specialties With The Best Quality Of Life

Medical Specialties with The best quality of life (Who are the Happiest Doctors?)

Family medicine, dermatology, psychiatry and pathology are the most recommended medical specialities in terms of quality of life. But the answers are very subjective. What each doctors values in life can differ significantly, so the answer can change.

Some doctors value reasonable working hours and the ability to spend time with their families. Others place greater emphasis on financial remuneration. Medical specialties vary a lot in terms of what they offer each individual. As does the country in which a doctor chooses to practice too (note: it’s probably not the UK).

Personally, as someone older than your average person coming into a healthcare career, I find my priorities – and the medical specialty that most appeals – change on the regular. Some days I feel like I’d rather a choose a fast-paced and stressful specialty over something typically deemed “life-style friendly”. But that term itself really needs more exploration!

So that’s the main point of this article. Here I seek to unpack the idea of a work-life balance in medicine and maybe better determine what constitutes a “quality life” as a doctor. Will certain specialties stand out?

Do Doctors Have A Good Work-Life Balance?

There is conflicting information when it comes to answering whether your 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 at least, neither country is a particularly good option for doctors seeking to strike a healthy work-life balance.

UK doctors will argue they work all the hours under the sun for very low pay. While Bulgarian doctors also make similar assertions. The issue in answering the question then? The comparisons these doctors make when estimating and judging their own situations.

Here are the problems, as I see it, in estimating work-life balance from the perspective of a doctor:

  • 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 in this regard which makes judging a doctors life outside of medicine straightforward. Age factors in massively too – what I might consider a good work-life balance at 34 could be starkly different to a colleague ten years younger than me!

For the most part though doctors are considered very busy people with demanding jobs. Comparatively speaking, at least compared to jobs where people aren’t responsible for something as sacred as another human’s life and health, it’s something with less of a work-life balance. But, again as I’m keen to emphasise, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Who Are The Happiest Doctors?

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. It’s also US-specific.

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.

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 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. Such is the complexity of deciphering what it means to be “happy” in the first place!

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.

Medical Specialties With The Best Hours

Perhaps it’s best to assume the specialties with the best work-life balance, or doctors who are the happiest, are those that have the most time outside of work. Obviously, those specialties that are conducive for lucrative part-time work might come up trumps here. While those that allow greater flexibility between picking and choosing a schedule might be sensible choices also.

Returning back to the original question, this could be why areas like family medicine, dermatology, psychiatry and pathology etc, are deemed favorable. 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, will usually fall outside their remit too.

In terms of hard data, there exists a report from 2015 from the physician network Doximity, canvassing over 90,000 physicians in terms of schedule flexibility and favorable working hours. According to the study, the specialties that came out on top are as follows:

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

While those that came off worse include:

  • Neurology
  • Anaesthesiology
  • Obstetrics and Gynaecology

Again this study is largely based on US-respondents and shouldn’t be taken as conclusive proof of how certain specialties might be in your own country.


Judging which medical specialties offer the best quality of life is wholly dependent on an individual’s priorities and which aspects of their lifestyle they hold the most sacred. Although data exists to suggest which of these myriad specialties have the more flexible schedules, highest pay and longest hours, it’s still up to personal choice to decide which is the most important.

As I sit writing this as a 4th year medic nearing the end of my studies, the notion of “happiness in healthcare” is certainly a question that’s taking growing precedence in my mind. The more exposure I get to each field, the more I’m beginning to see what kind of future in medicine I’d like for myself.

Right now though it’s still very early doors. I’ve still got a whole load of studying to get through first!

Image Credit: Jonathan Borba at Pexels