Five medical specialties that need more doctors
The United States faces a looming shortage of doctors. According to a recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, we could miss up to 124,000 physicians over the next 12 years.
There are several reasons for the growing gap between the supply of doctors and the demand from patients, but the main one is demographic. Between 2019 and 2034, the population of people aged 65 and older is projected to increase by 42.4%, four times the overall population growth rate in the United States. An older population means greater demand for health care.
At the same time, we can expect a wave of physician retirements. More than two in five practicing American physicians will be 65 or older in the next decade.
The expected shortage of doctors is expected to affect the entire medical profession, but some specialties will be more affected than others. Medical students choosing their career paths may want to determine which specialties will be most in demand.
“Future doctors want to know where they can do the most good,” said Dr. G. Richard Oldspresident of St. George’s University, which trains more medical students for residency programs in the United States than any other school.
Interestingly, graduates from international medical schools, including St. George’s, represent a disproportionate share of physicians practicing in some of the specialties where demand will be greatest in the coming years. About a quarter of physicians practicing in the United States today are graduates of an international medical school.
Here are five specialties facing severe doctor shortages in the future.
Even before the pandemic, the United States faced a mental health crisis, with one in 10 adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. The United States was already short of about 6,100 psychiatrists in 2019, according to federal data.
Since then, the problem has worsened. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a 25% spike in anxiety and depression, according to the World Health Organization. Drug addiction and difficulty sleeping and eating also increased.
Psychiatry is a specialty for doctors who like to build relationships with the people they treat. They spend about 60% of their working hours with patients and treat some people for long periods of time.
After medical school, most psychiatrists complete a four-year residency. Many undertake an additional one-year fellowship in a subspecialty such as forensic psychiatry, sleep medicine or addiction.
Critical care physicians care for extremely ill patients, including those on life support or with severe trauma. Also known as critical care doctors, these professionals have been on the frontlines of the pandemic, caring for patients with life-threatening cases of Covid-19. Critical care is among a subset of 12 specialties for which the AAMC report projects a total shortage of 13,400 physicians by 2034.
Needless to say, this specialty regularly puts physicians in high pressure situations. Some are attracted to the terrain because of the variety: there is no typical day because the pace is fast and unpredictable. While intensive care teams may witness death and loss every day, they also have daily opportunities to offer hope and save lives.
Today’s critical care workforce is quite diverse. International medical graduates represent over 40% of active intensive care physicians. These doctors come from medical schools in the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and beyond. Many are US citizens who have gone abroad for their education.
After medical school, these physicians typically complete a three-year residency in internal medicine, followed by a one- or two-year fellowship in critical care.
Living in times of a global pandemic, we are all aware of the potential impact of infectious diseases. Unfortunately, we still do not have enough doctors trained in this field.
Nearly 80% of counties in the United States do not have an infectious disease specialist, according to a study by the Annals of Internal Medicine. The number of medical students entering the field has plummeted for years, and in 2020 more than a fifth of infectious disease residency positions went unfilled.
Infectious disease doctors treat people for viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens that spread among populations. Since infectious diseases are constantly changing, these doctors often play medical detective, trying to identify new ailments. Because infectious diseases can affect such large populations, the specialty offers the opportunity to help people on a community scale, and even globally.
After attending medical school, infectious disease specialists typically complete a three-year internal medicine residency as well as a two- or three-year fellowship.
Like critical care and infectious diseases, endocrinology is one of 12 medical specialties for which the AAMC predicts a total shortage of up to 13,400 physicians over the next twelve years.
Endocrinology focuses on the endocrine system, which controls the body’s hormones. This is an increasingly crucial specialty as hormone-related diseases become more common.
Perhaps the best-known endocrine disease is diabetes, which is now the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. Endocrinologists also treat hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, and thyroid disorders, among other conditions. The average wait time for a consultation with an endocrinologist in the United States is 37 days. Without an influx of medics into the field, it will get longer.
Endocrinology tends not to involve ER. It involves building relationships with patients and helping them make life choices that can improve their long-term health.
After graduating from medical school, most endocrinologists complete a three-year internal medicine residency and a two- to three-year fellowship focused on endocrinology. Currently, approximately 41% of practicing endocrinologists are internationally trained.
Geriatricians treat diseases related to aging. The shortage in this area is one of the most severe in the medical profession. The American Geriatrics Society warns that we will likely need nearly 27,000 more geriatricians by 2025.
Geriatric medicine is considered part of primary care, and these doctors need a wide range of skills. But they also need high-level knowledge about chronic diseases and conditions that primarily affect older people, including heart disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, the number of geriatricians does not seem to be increasing. As with infectious diseases, residency programs in this specialty have struggled to fill niches in recent years.
Geriatrics attracts physicians who strive to provide compassionate, patient-centered care and solve complex problems, as many elderly patients have overlapping conditions. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, more than half of working geriatricians have graduated from an international medical school.
Geriatricians typically complete a three-year residency in family or internal medicine, followed by a one- or two-year fellowship.
A few other things to consider
These specialties will all be in demand in the years to come. However, Darlene Diepmedical admissions counselor at Moon Prep, points out that students will want to consider other factors, including salary, lifestyle, and their own talents and interests.
The schedule and pace of work vary depending on your career goal. And while the honor of the highest average salary in the medical profession goes to plastic surgeons, physicians in these five specialties still earn lucrative salaries. The shortage of doctors is likely to push salaries even higher for in-demand specialties.
The doctors of tomorrow may want to think about their future specialty even before enrolling in medical school. A great school with extensive hospital connections will provide students with the widest range of options when it comes time to choose their residency and specialty.
“We love helping students find their passion and meet critical medical needs,” Olds said. In the years to come, these medical needs will disproportionately concern these five specialties.