PHILADELPHIA – New rheumatology fellowships in underserved areas. Rheumatology training for nonspecialists. Telemedicine training, tools, and resources. These are a few of the remedies the American College of Rheumatology’s new Workforce Solutions Committee has concocted to address a shrinking U.S. rheumatology workforce in the face of a rising population of patients with rheumatologic diseases.
In two sessions at the ACR’s annual meeting, committee members provided insights on current workforce projections since the most recent ACR workforce study in 2015. They also outlined the 1-year-old committee’s response to bridge the looming gap in patient care. Some projects are already underway, while others have yet to be implemented and require sustained monetary and project coordination commitments to make their impacts felt across the targeted regions.
“At the current pace of physician departures from the workforce, even with fellows graduating from adult and pediatric rheumatology training programs, the subspecialty cannot be sustained,” said Daniel Battafarano, DO, chair of the Workforce Solution Committee, professor of medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., and adjunct professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio.
The Northwest is an example of the problem at hand. “For an adult, there’s 1.65 rheumatologists per 100,000 in 2015. In 2025, there’s going to be 0.5 [adult] rheumatologists per 100,000. That’s a problem. If you look at every region in the United States, every single region is decrementing significantly,” he said.
Even the Northeast, which boasted 3.07 adult rheumatologists per 100,000 in 2015, will drop to 1.61 in 2025. Other regions are much worse off. The Southwest will drop from 1.28 to 0.64, and North Central will drop from 1.64 to 0.69, projections show.
The situation for pediatrics “has been in a crisis since 2015,” Dr. Battafarano said. It is much worse off than the situation for adult rheumatology, with 2015 figures going from 0.17 to 0.20 in the Southwest and from 0.03 to 0.04 in the South Central region by 2025, and in the Northwest from 0.67 to 0.13 and Northeast from 0.83 to 0.16.
“The ill effects of the pandemic are immeasurable to this point, but anecdotally we know we lost colleagues to part-time employment, we saw early retirements, and that happened across the full spectrum of the United States,” he said. It’s possible that up to 10% of full-time equivalents of physicians left practice in the United States since the pandemic began.
Rheumatologists largely practice in the 392 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), which are defined as a “core area containing a substantial population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of economic and social integration with that core.” The smallest MSA has nearly 59,000 people. This distribution leaves many people in the Northwest, Southwest, South Central, and North Central regions with few rheumatologists. Over 86% of locations where rheumatologists train and work are in MSAs.
“By definition, if you get into a region where there’s 60,000 people or less, you can’t support a rheumatologist,” Dr. Battafarano said. He also noted that all pediatric hospitals tend to be in dense MSAs where rheumatologists might be.