Although the median physician salary is $208,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some physicians have found a way to amass personal fortunes far exceeding the expected. These doctors have leveraged their specialized education and training to create critical new products or even transform the delivery of healthcare itself.
Indeed, physicians have once again made the list of the world’s wealthiest people—that is, billionaires—compiled annually by Forbes. Let’s take a look at how they did it and what lessons they have to teach us.
No. 1: Take risks, don’t give up
Leonard Schleifer MD, PhD, co-founder and CEO of drugmaker Regeneron, was the son of a sweater manufacturer who grew up in Queens, New York. While working on his MD-PhD at the University of Virginia, he studied under future Nobel Laureate, Alfred G. Gilman. Upon completion of his residency, Schleifer chose not to launch his planned career as a neurologist, despite urging by his mentor, Gilman. Instead, Schleifer took on the tremendous risk of starting his own biotechnology company with a startup loan of $1 million.
It turned out to be a smart move: The company now has six FDA-approved drugs and Shleifer has a personal net worth of $2 billion as of May 2021, according to Forbes. In fact, he is one of only a few pharmaceutical executives to reach that level of wealth. But it was not a quick path to glory as a biotechnology entrepreneur. Schleifer’s first attempt at drug development, a drug for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig disease, was a failure. So too was a second attempt at an ALS drug, as well as an obesity drug and countless others. In fact, Schleifer’s company Regeneron toiled for 25 years before hitting upon its first blockbuster drug. The company struck gold with Eylea, a treatment for age-related macular degeneration and diabetic macular edema. The drug reached nearly $8.4 billion in sales in 2020, according to a report by FiercePharma.
Regeneron’s COVID-19 antibody cocktail is another major success for the company. In fact, the cocktail was the first COVID treatment to have proven significant antiviral activity against the virus responsible for the pandemic. As part of Operation Warp Speed, the US government awarded the company $450 million to manufacture and supply up to 300,000 doses, according to a press release. Last month, Regeneron sought expansion of its FDA Emergency Use Authorization for the drug’s use as a preventative against symptomatic COVID illness among individuals who have been recently exposed, according to a recent press release.
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No. 2: Consider that side gig
James R. Leininger MD, known as “Doctor Jim,” was the son of a doctor who encouraged his five sons to also become doctors. He served as an emergency room physician for more than a decade—a new specialty at the time. Leininger also took a side gig as a salesman for a specialty medical bed that rotated immobile patients. It ended up changing the direction of his life.
When the bed distributor, Kincoa, nearly went bankrupt in 1975, he and his wife, Cecelia, bought the company. They renamed it Kinetic Concepts, Incorporated (KCI), and ran it out of their one-bedroom apartment. The company focuses on wound care now and is the source of much of his personal fortune; his net worth is estimated at $1.5 billion as of May, according to Forbes.
No. 3: Live your passion
A devout Christian, Leininger has spent well over $100 million on philanthropy and backing conservative politicians in a bid to push Texas politics farther to the right, he told the Los Angeles Times.
The project he feels most passionate about is championing a school voucher program in Texas that would allow students from underperforming schools to attend private schools. He said his experience made him “acutely aware that not everyone gets the opportunity to succeed.” Since 1998, Leininger has funded scholarships for thousands of students, mainly Latinos, to attend private schools with help from his scholarships. Graduates have gone on to Yale and Notre Dame.
No. 4: You’re never too young to start
Keith Dunleavy, M.D., is a board-certified internal medicine specialist, who attended Harvard Medical School, according to his bio on Forbes. He is the founder of Inovalon, a healthcare data analytics company based in Bowie, Maryland. Now 51 years old, Dunleavy came up with the idea for Inovalon while still in his residency at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His company’s software collects data from hundreds of thousands of physicians and medical facilities and uses it to help healthcare providers deliver better treatment. For example, one of its applications amasses data from more than 100 million patients and uses predictive algorithms to allow health care providers to suggest health conditions patients might have or tests they may need at the point of care. Dunleavy’s net worth is $1.8 billion as of May, according to Forbes.
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No. 5: Broad experience pays off
August Troendle, MD, received his MD from the University of Maryland and is a newcomer this year to the Forbes billionaire list. He began his career with a short stint as a reviewer with the FDA, and then worked as a director for Swiss pharma company Sandoz (now known as Novartis) developing lipid lowering medications, where he stayed for five years, according to his bio on Medpace. He founded his own company called Medical Research Services in Cincinnati. Now known as Medpace, the company conducts clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies seeking to bring drugs, vaccines and medical devices to market. In addition to heading his own publicly traded company, he has amassed extensive experience serving as a director for a wide range of public and private companies, according to the bio. His net worth is $1.5 billion as of May, Forbes reports.
Read about other physician billionaires with Money lessons from 5 doctors who became billionaires on MDLinx.