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AMA TO OPERATE ON INCOME DATA FOR DOCTORS

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Tired of being told they make too much money, doctors are going to juggle the books to make it seem they're earning less.

The American Medical Association is changing the way it calculates doctors' incomes, lumping the salaries of private practitioners with those of federal government doctors and young doctors in training, who make considerably less."Yeah, it's an accounting change," said Dr. Nancy W. Dickey, the AMA's secretary-treasurer. "But the press leaves out the footnotes. Therefore our only choice is to make a change so the numbers show the whole picture. Now the physician looks less like he's gouging America."

The latest calculations, based on 1992 data, show that the mean income of U.S. doctors in private practice is $177,400 per year. That varies from $111,800 for general practitioners to $253,300 for radiologists, the highest paid group.

In contrast, doctors in training earn only $22,000 to $30,000 per year. The AMA has not previously collected information on the incomes of government doctors, but they are known to earn much less than doctors in private practice.

The AMA adopted the accounting change at its annual meeting, which ended Thursday. The first reports reflecting the change are expected in two or three years.

"It's unabashed deception of the public or anyone else who would want to know what physicians make," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group in Washington, D.C. "It sounds like the kind of snake oil that the AMA is very fond of criticizing others for."

But Dickey argued that the current figures reflect only doctors' prime earning years. They fail to take account of the many years of training that doctors undergo and the long hours they work.

"I think the doctors were trying to say, `Let's give the whole picture,' " she said.

Doctors leave medical school with an average of $50,000 to $100,000 in debts, she said. They spend three to 10 years as residents in training, working 80 to 100 hours per week.

It is only then that their incomes can soar, she said. But even then, the doctors are working about 60 hours a week, she said.

Some doctors wanted to stop the AMA from issuing income reports altogether.