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Oldest and Youngest Doctors by Specialty

Specialties with an older physician base may feel shortages more acutely as the aging American population requires increased care—and the impact of physician retirement and dropout becomes clear.

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One factor often cited in the growing physician shortage in the United States is the aging population of doctors; one-third of active physicians will be older than 65 in the next decade. But which specialties will be most affected by changing age demographics among doctors?

In their latest survey of Active Physicians by Age and Specialty Trusted Source Association of American Medical Colleges Highly respected medical organization Go to source , conducted in 2021, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) counted approximately 945,000 practicing physicians in the U.S. Of those, a slight majority (53%) are under age 55, while 47% are age 55 or older.

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Specialties with the most doctors over 55

Many of the specialties with older physicians are among the highest in demand.

1. Pulmonary Disease 

The AAMC’s 2021 survey of specialists by age found a whopping 92% of active pulmonary disease specialists were over 55. Some of this may be due to the trend of pulmonary critical care replacing pulmonary disease treatment. Still, with the increase in COPD in the Boomer generation, (not to mention COVID-19), pulmonologists can be hard for patients to find. The specialty ranks 11th in the U.S. for people per specialist, with more than 67,000 individuals for each practitioner.

2. Preventive Medicine 

More than seven in 10 (71%) of preventive medicine specialists are over 55, according to the AAMC survey, and the number of practitioners has dropped by almost half from its peak in the 1970s. With public health challenges coming into sharp focus during the pandemic, and only two preventive medicine specialists per 100,000 people, the specialty is likely to remain in the spotlight.

3. Clinical Pathology 

The survey found that 71% of clinical pathologists are over 55, but the overall number of practitioners may have been undercounted, according to the College of American Pathologists. Between 2007 and 2017, there was an 18% drop in the number of pathologists while the workload rose by almost 42%. A Medscape survey predicted that with a high burnout rate among clinical pathologists, retirement would peak in 2021—and that survey was pre-COVID. One bright spot: an increasing number of graduates from international medical schools, many of whom are U.S. citizens, are entering pathology.

4. Cardiovascular Disease 

The quadruple threat of aging, chronic disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome create an increased demand for cardiologists, 63% of whom are over 55. Though there was speculation in the past that the U.S. was training too many specialists, by 2001 it appeared the supply of cardiologists was not meeting the growing demand. The number of active cardiologists actually decreased by (0.4%) from 2016 to 2021, while the overall growth rate in doctors was 7% during the same period.

Medical graduates are often choosing other specialties, and those that do elect to go into cardiology are located primarily in urban areas, leaving other regions underserved.

5. Thoracic Surgery 

According to the AAMC, 63% of thoracic surgeons are over 55. Not only are thoracic surgeons an aging specialty, their total raw numbers are decreasing as well. The survey showed a decline in active thoracic surgeons between 2016 and 2021 of (0.2%). Research from the American Association of Thoracic Surgeons predicted a critical shortage by 2035. In fact, the research suggested the current workforce would have to increase their workloads by 121% to meet projected demand. Those numbers simply aren't feasible.

Specialties with the most doctors under 55

It makes sense that younger physicians are more represented in newer subspecialties, such as sports medicine, but younger doctors may also be seeking out higher-paying specialties like interventional cardiology.

1. Sports Medicine 

About 91% of sports medicine specialists are under 55, perhaps unsurprisingly since it’s been a subspecialty for less than 30 years. Currently, there are about 3,203 sports medicine physicians in the United States; it is one of the fastest growing specialties, with the number of practitioners increasing by more than 42% between 2016 and 2021. The average salary for a sports medicine specialist is roughly $250,000, and places in the top 1% of careers when it comes to job satisfaction.

2. Pediatric Anesthesiology 

Pediatric anesthesiology was recognized about 25 years ago by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Today there are 2,843 pediatric anesthesiologists in the U.S. with a median age of just 49. In 2021, the AAMC found that 89% of pediatric anesthesiologists were still under 55.

This is a specialty evenly divided between men and women. Men make up 49% of active specialists and women represent the other 51% of the workforce. About two-thirds of these practitioners are subspecialty board-certified, and a third are associated with an academic body.

3. Interventional Cardiology 

Innovations in technology and the introduction of new life-saving devices continue to expand the horizons of interventional cardiology, a field in which 84% of physicians are under 55. Interventional cardiologists earn, on average, approximately 30% more than noninvasive cardiologists. Applications to interventional cardiology training programs increased by over 30% from 2011 to 2015. Still, a shortfall exists, with about 75,000 people for each of the slightly more than 4,000 interventional cardiologists.

4. Pediatric Internal Medicine 

Eighty-eight percent of doctors specializing in pediatric internal medicine are currently under 55. Even so, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points to a shortage of pediatric medical subspecialists in many fields, including primary care pediatricians. The demand is likely to continue to increase, due to a rise in chronic diseases among children, decreasing physician work hours, and efforts to improve access to care among children, particularly in underserved areas.

5. Sports Medicine (Surgical) 

This orthopedic subspecialty is made up of 79% of doctors under 55. Recognized in 1992, surgical sports medicine is projected to make up an estimated 4% of all physicians and surgeons by 2029. Physicians express high satisfaction in the specialty, and make an average salary of $405,000. Like non-surgical sports medicine, it is a fast-growing field, led in part by the increase in availability of minimally-invasive technologies, which can help return athletes to the game more quickly and safely.

The bottom line

While age is just one factor in the continuing physician shortage, it is the one that cannot be changed. As older doctors retire or leave medicine for other reasons, the industry must continue to employ a variety of strategies to bring new doctors into medicine—and foster job satisfaction to keep them there.

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