There’s a persistent shortage of infectious disease specialists, and relatively few medical school graduates are pursuing this career, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), a medical association based in Arlington, Virginia.
Despite a shortage of infectious disease (ID) doctors, demand for them is rising, according to Carlos del Rio, the president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
In addition, New drugs for treating immune disorders and cancers, combined with the increasing availability of organ transplants, have led to a growing number of immunosuppressed Americans. Advances in critical care have also allowed sick individuals to be kept alive for longer. Despite the slowdown in international travel during the pandemic, travelers are still returning with infections not often seen in the US due to advances in critical care allowing extremely sick people to survive for more extended periods.
Due to these trends, it is becoming more likely that primary care doctors will encounter patients with unfamiliar infections, typically the expertise of infectious disease specialists.
According to a study published in October 2020 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, in 2017, eighty percent of US counties don’t even have one ID specialist, with about 208 million citizens residing in areas with inadequate infectious disease expertise.
The impact of this shortage is more severe in rural areas of America.
Recent models from the HRSA indicate that the US is currently facing a shortage of 240 infectious disease doctors. This shortage is expected to increase by 2035, with a nationwide shortfall of 7%. The deficit is more pronounced in rural areas, with only 17% of the necessary specialists.
T-Neil Ku, an infectious disease doctor in Billings, Montana, suggests that while rural areas offer ample outdoor recreational opportunities, more may be needed to attract infectious disease providers to practice in those areas.
Moreover, the fewer providers in rural areas result in a heavier workload for those who choose to practice there, making these areas even less attractive, Dr. Ku added. This challenge is further compounded by higher rates of public distrust towards infectious disease specialists and public health in rural America, partly due to long-standing inequities and political polarization.
He added that these long-standing inequities have resulted in politically motivated reductions in public health measures, creating a hostile environment for medical practitioners in many rural areas. This means even greater health disparities for rural residents regarding access to infectious disease providers, exacerbating the existing inequalities.
Most doctors believe pay is one of the biggest barriers to having more ID doctors.
According to Ku, the persistent issues in the profession stem from hospitals not viewing it as a source of profit. Instead, their main income from insurance company reimbursements is for hands-on medical care like surgery, compared to significantly smaller reimbursements for cognitive tasks such as taking patient histories and reviewing charts.