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Medical Specialty Outlook: What does the future hold?

Created January 25, 2007 by Lee

Given the current and expected physician shortage in the United States, any newly minted doctor will have no problems finding a job. “Doctors coming out of school are no different than a Heisman Trophy winners,” said Kurt Mosley, VP of business development at Merritt, Hawkins & Associates, a nationwide physician recruitment and staffing firm. “They are wooed and wooed. There’s no such thing as an unemployed physician.”

That’s the good news. And even better news is that, depending on what specialty you choose, you can expect a plethora of job offers and highly lucrative deals that include six-digit salaries, bonuses and vacation packages.

So which medical specialties are “hot?” In the past couple of years cardiologists have been most in demand, commanding annual salaries ranging roughly from $230,000 to $520,000. Other high-income specialties include ophthalmology, anesthesiology, dermatology, and plastic surgery.

And the “hot“ specialties are expected to keep sizzling well into the future decades. As the population grows older and the risk of age-related conditions rises, there will be an increased demand for specialists to treat these diseases. For example, experts say the baby boomers may be the most vulnerable generation ever to heart disease, hence the need for cardiologists. And according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the demand for cataract surgery within that age group is expected to increase by 47 percent, and the need for general ophthalmic surgery is predicted to rise by 88 percent.

Plastic surgery is another cutting edge specialty that will cater to affluent baby boomers, ready to pay out of the pocket for rejuvenating but costly nips and tucks. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that in 2004 more than 8.7 million Americans spent $9.4 billion on elective cosmetic procedures that required cash up front. The trend is expected to continue, helping plastic surgeons to rake in an average of $320,000 a year.

Another area where demand for specialists is steadily growing is hospice and palliative medicine. With longer life expectancies and millions more of baby boomers boosting the ranks of the general population every year, “this is an area that is very important to all of the specialties involved,” said Stephen H. Miller, president and CEO of the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Starting in 2008 the Board will certify 10 specialties – family medicine, internal medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, anesthesiology, psychiatry, neurology, radiology and surgery – to care for patients with chronic or terminal diseases.
“Each of the co-sponsoring boards recognizes the growing importance of this area of medicine,” said James C. Puffer, MD, president and CEO of the American Board of Family Medicine.

Just as some specialties gain in popularity, lower paying, time demanding, on-call fields such as family medicine, internal medicine and general surgery are shunned. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, osteopathic family practice residency programs fill just over half of their open positions. And general surgery experiences a painful cut in its ranks as well, as “students are more interested in being with their family and having free time,” said Susan Brundage, MD, who conducted a study on the career choices of University of Texas-Houston medical students, and subsequently published the findings in the Journal of Surgical Research. “If they can work in a less-demanding specialty to economically support the lifestyle they want, maybe the attractiveness of surgery doesn’t compensate for the lost time and money.”

So how do med students decide what specialties to pursue amid the myriad of fields available to them? It is a toss-up between the quality of life and financial obligations. On one hand, high-income specialties will help offset undergraduate and medical schools loans, amounting, on average, to a hefty $120,000 per student.

On the other hand, “lifestyle issues have been significant in the choice of specialty,” says David Kennedy, Vice Dean for Professional Services of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “It’s a big reason more medical students choose specialties that offer high salaries and normal work hours.”

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