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8 Things to Know About the Neurologist Shortage

An aging workforce and increased demand are putting pressure on the neurology workforce.

Surgeon looking at MRI scans
Getty

In its 2021 report on physician supply and demand, the Association of American Medical Colleges projects that by 2034, the industry will face a shortage of up to 48,000 primary care physicians and up to 77,100 specialists. With the COVID-19 pandemic driving many doctors to retire early or change careers, these numbers could be even higher.

As the number of patients needing neurologic care rises, a worldwide shortage of neurologists affects patient outcomes and career satisfaction for neurologists. As populations grow and age, there are likely to be more patients and fewer neurologists to serve them. Here are some key facts about the neurologists shortage and steps that can help reverse it.

Poll
What's the best way to combat the physician shortage?
Use more telemedicine
Use more NPs and PAs
Open up more residency slots
Reform malpractice law
Forgive medical school loans
Use more telemedicine
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Use more NPs and PAs
%
Open up more residency slots
%
Reform malpractice law
%
Forgive medical school loans
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Total votes: 941

1. Population changes are contributing to the neurologist shortage. 

According to a 2020 article from Medscape, population trends are one of the biggest drivers of the neurologist shortage. By 2033, the U.S. population is projected to grow about 10%, and the number of people ages 65 and older will increase by 45%. This population growth will fuel the demand for more specialists, including neurologists. The U.S. population of retiring doctors is also increasing and will contribute to the shortage in neurology.

2. The neurologist shortage varies by location. 

While the rate of neurologic conditions is similar across regions, the access to specialty care differs. One report showed that in urban areas, 27% of people needing care from a neurologist can get it, but only 21% have access in rural areas. There are also shortages in specialty areas of neurology. Researchers found that 80% of Parkinson's disease patients receive care from a neurologist, but it can be difficult to find neurologists trained to treat other types of neurologic conditions.

3. Burnout is causing neurologists and other doctors to leave their careers. 

According to a 2023 report from Medscape, neurology is one of the higher-ranked specialties that’s experiencing burnout, with 60% of neurologist respondents saying they are burned out, depressed, or both. Overall, most physicians reported feeling this way before the pandemic, but 21% say working during COVID-19 has made them feel more burned out than ever. The long-term effects of burnout is causing many doctors—including neurologists—to exit the medical field, even though they’ve invested considerable time and money in their training.

4. Innovations in medical treatments have increased the need for neurologists. 

In a 2021 interview with Neurology Live, Dr. Jennifer Majersik, division chief of vascular neurology at the University of Utah, says she believes that neurologists may have become the victims of their own success. Innovative treatments for conditions such as migraine, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis have created more work for neurologists. Positive patient outcomes, like Parkinson’s patients experiencing fewer falls when working with a neurologist, have increased the value of neurology care. As the demand for neurologists grows, thanks to innovative treatment options, so does the shortage of supply.

5. Locum tenens neurologists are filling the gaps. 

As the neurologist shortage becomes a common reality, healthcare facilities are turning to locum tenens physicians to fill open neurology positions. In a 2019 survey, 71% of the participants use locum tenens providers to maintain services and revenues while searching for physicians to permanently fill vacant roles. They also reported that they use these temporary doctors to meet increasing patient demand for specialty physicians.

6. Congress can help open a pipeline of new physicians. 

In 1997, Congress placed a freeze on federal support for residency training of new physicians. This has had a big impact on the neurologist shortage, as well as the overall shortage of doctors. This bottleneck reduces the number of people entering residency programs, which limits the supply of doctors. If newly graduated MDs can’t get access to this final step in their training, they’re locked out of their profession until one of many coveted slots opens up. In 2020, more than 2,900 medical school graduates missed out on getting matched for residencies.

7. Increasing compensation can help neurology recruitment. 

According to a recent Medscape Compensation Report, the average neurologist salary ($313,000) ranks in the bottom third of salaries for all doctors. Compensation for neurology and other cognitive fields has lagged behind, which can make the specialty less appealing to medical students. Compensation is a key element of specialty choice as graduates leave school with significant student loan debt.

8. The neurology field needs mentors.

If neurologists want to see more undergraduate and graduate students choosing their field, they can help increase understanding and interest by becoming mentors. Many potential neurologists have a misperception that they’ll only treat short-term issues and won’t have much of an impact on patients. If you can show students what a difference neurologists make in the lives of their patients, you can help them see neurology as a rewarding medical career that changes people’s lives. Mentoring students and teaching courses in unique areas of neurology may help shine a new light on the benefits of entering this specialty.

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  1. Medscape Neurologist Lifestyle, Happiness & Burnout Report 2023.
    https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2023-lifestyle-neurologist-6016083#4
  2. A Shortage of Neurologists – We Must Act Now. Neurology. https://n.neurology.org/content/96/24/1122
  3. Physician Shortage Grows in Latest Projections. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/933068#vp_2
  4. 'Death by 1000 Cuts': Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2021-lifestyle-burnout-6013456#3
  5. Physician Shortages Blamed on Residency Policies in New Report. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/959711
  6. Locum Tenens Surge Due to Doc Shortage, Turnover: Report. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/925729#vp_2
  7. Back to Normal? For Many Physicians, the Answer Is 'Not So Fast…' Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/953967
  8. Addressing the Neurologist Shortage and Increased Need for Neurologic Care. Neurology Live. https://www.neurologylive.com/view/addressing-neurologist-shortage-increased-need-neurologic-care
  9. Neurologists Much Tougher to Find in Rural America. U.S. News and World Report. https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2020-12-29/neurologists-much-tougher-to-find-in-rural-america
  10. Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2023.
    https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2023-compensation-overview-6016341#3
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