Three Ways the Physician Workforce is Changing

April 5, 2021


The Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2020 Physician Specialty Data Report is out and this year, it’s revealing three top transformations taking place within the nation’s physician workforce. Published biennially, this report provides the most current data available about active physicians and physicians training in residency and fellowship programs for the largest specialty groups. Changes underway: More women are becoming doctors, more doctors are nearing retirement age and sports medicine is growing faster than any other specialty. 

Women rise

In 2019, women tipped the medical school scales, overtaking men in enrollment for the first time – 50.5 percent. While they’ve not yet evened those scales in practice, the gap is narrowing. Women today comprise 36.6 percent of the physician workforce, up from 28.3 percent in 2007, the first year for which the AAMC began producing the report. While the rise indicates progress toward a more diverse workforce, women do remain concentrated in certain specialties while barely showing up in others.

Female physicians lead in family-centric specialties including:

  • Pediatrics – 64.3%
  • Obstetrics and gynecology 0 58.9%
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry – 54.0%
  • Neonatal-perinatal medicine – 52.8%

They remain a significant minority in specialties including general surgery (22%), pulmonary disease (12.3%), urology (9.5%) and orthopedic surgery (5.8%).

“We have a good deal more work to do in terms of gender equity,” says Michael Dill, the AAMC’s director of workforce studies. “If the majority of female physicians are still concentrated in a handful of specialties, then we haven’t gotten where we need to be.”

Aging physicians

Among the top contributing factors in the projected physician shortage is the exodus of Baby Boomer doctors hitting retirement age. Last year 44.9 percent of physicians were 55 or older, up from 37.6 percent in 2007. Specialties most affected include:

  • Preventive medicine, where 69.6% of physicians are 55 or older
  • Thoracic surgery — 60.1%
  • Orthopedic surgery — 57.1%
  • Urology — 50.5%
  • Pediatrics — 44.5%
  • Pediatric critical care medicine — 23.3%
  • Pediatric anesthesiology — 8.9%

Growing specialties

Leading the charge in growth rates is sports medicine, which grew by 55.3 percent since 2014. A key factor is the shift toward healthier lifestyles adopted by the younger populations as well as rising incidences of injuries among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Despite the growth, sports medicine remains a relatively small specialty overall. Just under 2,900 physicians specialized in sports medicine in 2019 while doctors in emergency medicine, which grew by just 17.2 percent, numbered more than  45,200. 

Most notable growing and declining specialties include:

  • Pediatric anesthesiology — up 52.8%
  • Critical care medicine — up 38.3%
  • Internal medicine — up 5.5%
  • Family medicine/General practice: up 5.3%
  • Anatomic/Clinical pathology — down 7.0%
  • Pulmonary disease — down 10.6%

In training

The trends seen in various specialties chosen by residents and fellows somewhat mirror those among working physicians with a few exceptions, per data from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Key findings:

  • Specialties with the largest numbers of first-year residents and fellows were the primary care specialties of internal medicine (10,379), family medicine/general practice (4,456) and pediatrics (2,993).
  • 45.8% of the residents and fellows in ACGME-accredited programs were women, ranging from a high of 83.8% in obstetrics and gynecology residencies to a low of 12.9% in sports medicine (orthopedic surgery) residencies.
  • Between 2014 and 2019, first-year residents and fellows increasingly specialized in sports medicine (up by 29.1%) and neurology (25.2%), while large decreases occurred in ophthalmology (down 10.9%), plastic surgery (10.8%) and vascular and interventional radiology (10.5%).

No matter the specialty you choose, WOLFPACC can help you prepare, ace your USMLE and COMLEX exams and gain the competitive edge. Find out how by calling 904-209-3140 and speaking with an enrollment specialist today.

Read the full 2020 Physician Specialty Data Report here.