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9 Things to Know About the Pulmonologist Shortage

An aging workforce and growing demand is putting pressure on the delivery of pulmonology care.

Close-up of male African American doctor's hand examining male patient's back with stethoscope
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There’s a shortage of primary care and specialty physicians in the U.S. and the projected shortfall continues to grow. A report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates that the shortage of physicians in all areas will range from 54,000 to 139,000 by 2032.

Pulmonologists are in higher demand as the population continues to age and more Americans are affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Some studies report that there may be a deficit of approximately 1,400 pulmonologists by as early as 2025.

Although the average salary for pulmonologists is $378,000 and new physicians are entering the workforce every year, the number of new pulmonologists isn’t keeping up with the demand. Here are a few key things to know about the shortage of pulmonologists.

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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
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Open up more residency slots
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Reform malpractice law
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Forgive medical school loans
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Total votes: 940

1. The pulmonologist shortage has been going on for a while. 

Merritt Hawkins, a physician recruiting firm, reported that pulmonologists topped their “absolute demand” list as early as 2017. Their number of searches for pulmonologists and critical care specialists has grown approximately 150% since 2012-2013. They attribute this to the rise of COPD cases and the aging U.S. population.

This demand for doctors also shows up when you talk to patients. Public opinion research from the AAMC in 2019 reported that 35% of survey participants said they or someone they knew had trouble finding a doctor in the previous year or two, a 10-point increase from the 2015 study.

2. COVID-19 made the physician shortage worse for all specialties. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed shortcomings in the healthcare system, especially when it comes to physician demand in all areas. This experience has demonstrated how important physicians are to the national healthcare infrastructure and the problems that arise when we don’t have enough doctors to meet demand, particularly in specialty areas such as pulmonology. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, the need for critical care physicians and pulmonologists is expected to increase.

3. Burnout may be one reason pulmonologists are leaving the field early. 

According to recent Medscape reports about physician burnout, 48% of pulmonologists are experiencing burnout. That number was a little lower (41%) last year. Of this group, 32% are only experiencing burnout while 16% are dealing with burnout and depression. When asked about the impact of burnout on their life, 37% of pulmonologists said it was strong or severe. This high incidence and level of burnout could cause pulmonologists to retire early or change career paths.

4. The aging population is a key factor in the pulmonologist shortage.

The U.S. population was projected to grow by 10.6% between 2019 and 2034 with an anticipated 42.4% increase in the number of people aged 65 and older. When you pair the growth of our aging population with the fact this age bracket is at a higher risk for developing COPD, you create a higher demand for pulmonologists. Another key statistic is that 70% of pulmonologists are 55 or older and they’re approaching retirement age. As the volume of patients increases and the number of doctors decreases, we’re left with a significant gap in pulmonology care.

5. Pediatric pulmonologists and other subspecialties are in high demand. 

Many subspecialty areas of pulmonology are feeling the effects of the pulmonologist shortage. For example, there are fewer than 1,000 pediatric pulmonologists in the United States. Low numbers like this means there are fewer physicians to teach and train new pediatric pulmonologists. However, it’s good news for medical students who are looking for pulmonologist job opportunities in the academic sector, private practice, or hospitals.

6. The pulmonologist shortage is worse in rural areas. 

Rural areas already have a difficult time getting equitable access to healthcare, especially for high-demand specialists such as pulmonologists. The pandemic has spotlighted many disparities in healthcare access for underserved populations and brings new attention to shortages in all specialty areas. For these patients, the concern is not just whether we’ll have enough pulmonologists in the future, but if we’ll have enough for everyone to get access. The positive news is that pulmonologist salaries are often higher in these locations, which could help encourage new doctors to practice in these communities.

7. Funding for pulmonologist training is more important than ever. 

In the past, physician shortages have been a challenge because of limits on how many fellowships received government funding. Congress recently took a key step in addressing this issue by adding 1,000 Medicare-supported graduate medical education (GME) positions over the next five years. The Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2021 has also been introduced and would add 2,000 federally-supported medical residency positions annually for seven years. This investment in the healthcare workforce could make a big dent in the pulmonologist shortage.

8. Advanced practice practitioners can help fill the gap.

How are practices handling the pulmonologist shortage right now? Many are using the expertise of advanced practice practitioners (APPs) such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants. These practitioners are ideal for providing support in ICUs and practices that are short a pulmonologist or two. The only drawback is there aren’t any pulmonary fellowship programs for these positions, so pulmonologists are needed to train APPs.

9. Telemedicine is helping ICUs manage the pulmonologist shortage. 

Healthcare systems and private practices have added telemedicine to their toolkit for dealing with the pulmonologist shortage. Specialty tele-ICU companies, like Eagle Telemedicine and SOC Telemed, are addressing shortages by delivering the expertise of veteran physicians to multiple locations using their telemedicine platforms. Not only is this helpful when you’re short-staffed, but it allows healthcare systems and private practices to provide quality pulmonary care to patients in rural areas and reduces the need to transfer patients to larger care facilities.

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  1. SOC Telemed Launches New telePulmonology Service Line. SOC Telemed. https://www.soctelemed.com/blog/press/soc-telemed-launches-new-telepulmonology-service-line/
  2. Medscape Pulmonologist Lifestyle, Happiness & Burnout Report 2021. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2021-lifestyle-pulmonologist-6013523
  3. Physician Shortage Grows in Latest Projections. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/933068Crunch Time Comes for an Understaffed Specialty. Medscape. https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/881293
  4. AAMC Report Reinforces Mounting Physician Shortage. Association of American Medical Colleges. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/press-releases/aamc-report-reinforces-mounting-physician-shortage
  5. The Rapidly Increasing Need for Pulmonologists. Jackson Coker. https://jacksoncoker.com/resources/exclusive-research/the-rise-of-copd-and-lack-of-pulmonologists/Advanced practice providers can help meet increased demand for pulmonology care. Chest Daily News. https://chestdailynews.chestnet.org/advanced-practice-providers-can-help-meet-increased-demand-for-pulmonology-care/
  6. Choosing Pediatric Pulmonology. American Thoracic Society. https://www.thoracic.org/professionals/career-development/residents-medical-students/choosing-pediatric-pulmonology.php
  7. Tele-ICU: An Invaluable Tool. Eagle Telemedicine. https://www.eagletelemedicine.com/tele-icu-key-to-retaining-patients-during-the-pulmonologist-shortage/ICU and Pulmonology Telemedicine Ease Staffing Concerns. Eagle Telemedicine. https://www.eagletelemedicine.com/resources/case-studies/pulmonology-telemedicine/
  8. Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2023.
    https://www.medscape.com/slideshow/2023-compensation-overview-6016341#3
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