The Shortage of Endocrinologists

Most people know that obstetricians deliver babies, and that surgeons operate on patients. Endocrinologists aren't as well known. But they play a critical role in treating many diseases. The demand for their services is expected to increase as people continue to live longer.

Endocrinologists are trained to treat diseases that affect glands. Glands are the organs in the body that make hormones. Diabetes is one of the major diseases they treat. Thyroid and bone diseases are other examples.

There aren't enough endocrinologists to meet the demand. That's because diabetes and obesity rates are rising and many endocrinologists are retiring.

One reason for the shortage is that medical students don't hear much about the specialty and don't get exposed to it until late in their schooling, says Dr. Richard Hellman. He is the president of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. He also works as a clinical endocrinologist in Kansas City.

By the time medical students realize that they enjoy endocrinology, Hellman says, they usually have already chosen a different specialty. Others decide to choose a specialty that earns a higher salary, like dermatology, the treatment of skin diseases.

People who want to become endocrinologists must complete four years of medical school after college, plus a three-year medical residency, then two or more additional years of studying hormone problems.

Some in this field focus on adult diseases, while others work with children. The national shortage of endocrinologists includes the specialists who work with children, says Dr. Heather Dean. She is an associate dean and professor of pediatrics at a medical school. Endocrinologists who work with children are called pediatric endocrinologists.

Most pediatric endocrinologists work in academic health centers in large urban children's hospitals. Dean says the need for their expertise is increasing, especially as obesity rates in children continue to rise.

"It's definitely a human resource problem," she says.

Those who enter the field have a high index of job satisfaction and enjoy the range of cases and problems they encounter, Dr, Andre Lacroix says. He's president of an endocrinologists' society. "It's a field where the capacity to intervene and improve a patient's clinical situation is very large because there are very efficient treatments," he says.

Hellman's organization is trying to make young people more aware of what endocrinologists do in hopes that they will choose that career path. He says people who find endocrinology rewarding are people who enjoy solving puzzles.

Endocrinologists are always discovering new things about how the body works. This makes it an exciting career, says Dr. Janet Hall. She is the president of Women in Endocrinology and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

"There's been a tremendous amount of advances in the last few years, from the recognition of some of the genes that are responsible for diabetes, to the recognition of how important it is to be paying attention to diet and lifestyle," Hall says.

"We used to tell patients that because we believed it. Now we have the data behind it."

Hall says many women are attracted to the field because the hours are reasonable. Endocrinologists don't have to get up in the middle of night to deliver babies, like obstetricians do. Sometimes they can share the job with another doctor and work part time while raising a family. Other women appreciate the fact that it's a field in which women can advance professionally.

Through efforts by the Women in Endocrinology group, female endocrinologists now are equally represented on national committees and are recognized for their accomplishments, she says.

Many women also enjoy the career because it gives them the chance to see patients over a longer period of time and help solve their problems, Hall says.

Hellman agrees that endocrinology has become more attractive to young women. But he says men are still welcome, too.

"Many of the young men who go into it are attracted to the same things -- the love of science, and the enjoyment of long-term relationships with patients," he says.


American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists
Dedicated to advancing the practice of clinical endocrinology

Association of Program Directors in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
Provides info on training program

The Endocrine Society
An international society promoting endocrinology

Pediatric Endocrine Society
Focuses on research and treatment of children with endocrine disorders

Women in Endocrinology
Promotes the professional development of female endocrinologists

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