rheumatology

Rheumatology Careers: Opportunities and Challenges in a Growing Field

Rheumatology, a specialized branch of medicine focusing on autoimmune and musculoskeletal disorders, plays a crucial role in improving patient quality of life. With the number of US citizens with arthritis expected to rise by 49% by 2040, reaching 78.4 million, rheumatologists will be highly sought after, and rheumatology careers will be thriving.

In this article, we will explore the opportunities and challenges for those pursuing rheumatology careers, shedding light on the career prospects for aspiring rheumatologists.

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Growing Demand for Rheumatologists

Due to the aging population and the increased understanding of rheumatological diseases, the number of patients who will need rheumatological care and home-based care is on the rise.

According to the American College of Rheumatology, the shortage of rheumatologists in the coming decades will be severe — the demand will outstrip the supply by 102% by 2030 [1].

The shortage includes not only physicians but also nursing practitioners and physician assistants, as the total number of providers threatens to decrease by 25%, especially as many rheumatologists approach retirement [2].

Rheumatology Careers

By 2025, the number of rheumatology experts will decrease across all US regions. However, some regions will be hit harder than others. The Southwest is expected to have only 0.5 rheumatologists per 100,000 people in 2025. For comparison, it had 1.28 rheumatologists per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 [3].

However, the paper from the American College of Rheumatology also points out that this is not written in stone. If this shortage is addressed properly, through fellowships, funding, and encouraging student interest, the 102% scenario need not happen. But even with the best-case scenario of an 11.7% shortage, the demand would still be there. [4]

Opportunities in Rheumatology Careers

Rheumatology offers diverse career opportunities in various healthcare settings. Rheumatologists can work in hospitals, clinics, academic institutions, and research facilities.

Specializations within rheumatology, such as pediatric rheumatology or rheumatoid arthritis management, provide avenues for focused practice and professional growth.

Physicians

Moreover, physicians specializing in rheumatology earn over $281,000 on average, and earning potential increases with experience and expertise. Also, stats confirm aspiring doctors are noticing the increased need for rheumatology physician jobs.

Between 2015 and 2019, there was a 49% increase in the number of fellowship applicants, making rheumatology one of the top four specializations in internal medicine. [5]

NPs and Physician Assistants

At the same time, nursing practitioners and physician assistants remain a key touchpoint for patients, especially in primary care.

With additional certifications, such as the Rheumatology Nurse Practitioner Certification (RNPC), people considering nursing specialties have excellent opportunities to improve patient lives and earn a livelihood for themselves.

Challenges Faced by Rheumatological Care Providers

Financial Challenges

Financial pressure is one of the most significant challenges rheumatology providers face. The cost of medical education often leaves them burdened with substantial debts, with the average rheumatology professional owing $250,000 for their education.

This debt can impact their career choices, leading to considerations such as practice settings that offer higher compensation or opportunities for loan forgiveness programs.

Education Opportunities

While the field offers diverse education and training opportunities, accessing these opportunities can be challenging. Limited availability of fellowship positions, especially in specialized areas like pediatric rheumatology or musculoskeletal ultrasound, can hinder career advancement and specialization.

For NPs and physician assistants, specializing in rheumatology also requires significant effort, with many resorting to additional online education. Increased funding matters deeply not just for aspiring rheumatologists, but the aging population of the US as well.

At the same time, international students make up a significant portion of fellows and retaining them in the country is another key tactic in reducing the rheumatologist shortage.

Burnout and Work-Life Balance

Many rheumatologists experience severe burnout due to the increase in demand, so keeping them in the workforce requires organized effort from healthcare providers. According to physician burnout statistics from the American Medical Association, 63% of physicians reported symptoms of burnout at the end of 2021.

Diversity and Inclusion in Rheumatology

As the US population becomes more diverse, so does the rheumatology field. While this is essential for providing excellent care to patients, it is also a challenge for the field which is dominated by large healthcare companies with various degrees of worker protection, especially for female doctors, whose number is growing [6].

Technological Advancements in Rheumatology

Technological advancements have revolutionized rheumatology practice, but they have also forced medical professionals to stay up-to-date on applying rapidly changing technology. This includes handling challenges such as secure data management, system interoperability, and training.

Some of the main advancements in rheumatology tech include:

  • Electronic health records – EHRs allow rheumatologists to access comprehensive medical histories, lab results, and treatment plans more easily.
  • Telehealth – Telehealth enables remote consultations, follow-ups, and monitoring of patients, which is especially important for patients in rural or underserved areas.
  • Mobile health – mHealth helps patients monitor their symptoms, medication adherence, and disease activity using healthcare mobile apps.
  • AI and machine learning – These technologies assist in diagnosing rheumatological diseases, predicting disease progression, and personalizing treatment plans.
  • Wearables – Wearables provide valuable insights into patients' daily activities, mobility, and exercise levels, improving diagnostics and patient outcomes.
Rheumatology Career

Why Go Into Rheumatology 

Despite being in the lower third of specializations when it comes to pay [7], rheumatology careers provide career stability due to skyrocketing demand for specialists in this field.

At the same time, the academic community also seeks rheumatology specialists in order to train the following generations of specialists. meaning there are also career paths for people who want to work in an academic setting.

Finally, it is a specialty that requires you to get to know your patients, as you may be caring for some of them for decades due to the chronic nature of rheumatological conditions. 

Sources:

[1], [2], [4], [5] National Library of Medicine [3], [6] American College of Rheumatology [7] UCLA

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