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Americans Believe Nurses are Underpaid, New Study Says

Analysis  |  By Carol Davis  
   August 12, 2021

More healthcare pay research could 'better inform public opinion' around policies and spending, public policy expert says.

Most Americans believe nurses and healthcare aides are underpaid, according to a new study about the public's attitude toward healthcare and its workers.

In contrast, only 11% of Americans think doctors are underpaid, while about half say they are paid the right amount, according to the study from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Most of the country also thinks physical therapists and pharmacists are paid appropriately.

Nurses earn an average of $80,010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while healthcare aides' average earnings are $25,330.

"Most of the public clearly believes doctors are paid about the right amount or are overpaid, but many Americans don't have an accurate sense of doctors' salaries," Joshua Gottlieb, an associate professor at Harris Public Policy, said in a press release. "More research on healthcare workers' pay could better inform public opinion around healthcare policies, spending, and the government's role in shaping contemporary labor markets."

Americans' views of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a single-payer system, and a government-provided public option for healthcare have not shifted significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

ACA supporters are more likely to favor government funding to increase doctors' salaries—23% vs. 13%—than those who oppose it. Likewise, they are more likely to support funding to increase the number of doctors—73% vs. 42%.

Most Americans believe the ACA had no effect on the pay of doctors or nurses, but about one-third think the law created a windfall for hospital and insurance executives. They also think that both hospital and insurance executives are overpaid, and three-fourths of the public doesn’t trust hospital executives to do what is right for them and their families, the study said.

"The results show the usual partisan divides when it comes to the ACA and other major healthcare reform proposals but highlight a bipartisan consensus around the pay of healthcare workers," said Trevor Tompson, AP-NORC Center director. "These findings provide some evidence that policies designed to improve pay for nurses and healthcare aides or lower the salaries of executives could be popular with both Democrats and Republicans."

The study's other key findings include:

  • Most Americans support increased government funding for lowering out-of-pocket costs for patients (74%) and for expanding government health insurance coverage for low-income people (59%).
  • More than two-thirds of those who support a public option (69%) favor increasing the number of doctors, compared to 40% of those who oppose a public option.
  • Nearly three-fourths of the public (72%) supports allowing the federal government and private insurance to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.


Most nurses are underpaid while most doctors are adequately paid, a new healthcare survey says.

About one-third of Americans believe the Affordable Care Act had no effect on the pay of doctors or nurses, but think it created a windfall for hospital and insurance executives.

74% of Americans support increased government funding for lowering out-of-pocket costs for patients.

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