According to the American Medical Association (AMA), most medical school students choose their specialty near the end of their third year. However, many medical students frequently change their designated specialty in the years following graduation and in residency training. Tracking these shifts offers interesting insight into changes in the physician market, and helps industry experts predict which specialties are in most demand.
Below, we’ve examined trends among medical school graduates from 1980 to 2018 to see which specialty areas have seen the greatest amount of growth, and how physician demographics have changed over time. Our demographic information includes declared medical specialties, number of graduates, and sex.
What are the most popular medical specialties?
Family practice and internal medicine are the most reported specialties for medical school graduates since 1990. These doctors make up nearly one-quarter of the approximately 656,000 physicians analyzed.
As doctors continue training and practice through their careers, their primary care focus may eventually evolve into a different sub-specialty.
Top 10 specialties by medical school graduates 1990 – 2018
Fig 1 Data from the Definitive Healthcare PhysicianView product and is sourced from proprietary research, the NPI registry and Physician Compare. Data accessed September 2022.
Emergency medicine, anesthesiology, and obstetrics/gynecology were also among the top five most popular specialties for medical school graduates in the U.S. between 1990 and 2018. Many of the most popular specialties for medical school graduates over the last 30 years are also some of the highest paid medical specialties.
What is the fastest growing medical specialty?
Between 2008 and 2018, eight medical specialties had increases in the number of medical school graduates by at least one percentage point. By this measure, family practice is the fastest growing physician specialty in the U.S.
In 2008, for instance, only 10.3% of medical school graduates in the U.S. declared a family practice specialty. By 2018, the total number of family practice medical school graduates was 22.1%.
Top fastest-growing medical specialties by percentage point increase 2008 – 2018
Fig 2 Data from the Definitive Healthcare PhysicianView product and is sourced from proprietary research, the NPI registry and Physician Compare. Data accessed September 2022.
Emergency and internal medicine—two of the most popular physician specialties—are also among the top five fastest-growing medical specialties in the U.S. Using this information, we might be able to predict that emergency medicine and internal medicine will continue to grow, potentially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s possible that this virus will cause other specialties like pulmonology, intensive care medicine, and preventative medicine to grow within the next few years, as well.
Additional specialties that show the most growth in medical school graduates include:
What percentage of medical school graduates are female?
One of the most marked changes to occur in the physician market within the past 40 years is the number of female doctors entering the workforce. In 1980, only 19.5 percent of medical school graduates were female compared to 80.5 percent of male graduates.
Medical school graduates from 1980 – 2018 by sex
Fig 3 Data from the Definitive Healthcare PhysicianView product and is sourced from proprietary research, the NPI registry and Physician Compare. Data accessed September 2022.
By 2010, that disparity was minimized, and the number of female and male graduates became nearly equal at 48% and 52%, respectively. Data available on graduates through 2018 are even closer to equal representation.
What does the future physician market look like?
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and heightened challenges the healthcare delivery system was already experiencing, such as physician shortages and provider burnout. And while some retired doctors returned to practice, the aging physician workforce will contribute to workforce challenges.
At the same time, increased demand for healthcare services, changes to physician reimbursements, and shifts to outpatient care constrain resources.
Updating staffing and recruiting practices as well as raising limits to residency programs and expanding education opportunities are some initial steps we believe can help address healthcare staffing shortages and shape the physician market of the future
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