Specialties often change between medical school graduation and the end of a resident’s training, but tracking patterns among medical school graduates has historically been a good way to predict coming shifts in the physician market. This includes demographic information such as gender, number of graduates, and declared medical school specialties.
Though there is no way of knowing how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the future of the physician market, analyzing previous patterns among medical graduates can give a better picture of where the market is headed.
Here, we’ll examine trends among medical school graduates from 1980 through 2016 to see which physician demographics and specialty areas have seen the greatest amount of growth in recent years.
What percentage of medical school graduates are female?
One of the most marked changes to occur in the physician market within the past 40 or so 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 – 2016 by gender
Fig 1 Graph from Definitive Healthcare’s Expert Premium Content database. Data is based on 1.18 million providers with a National Provider Identifier (NPI) and a record in CMS’ Physician Compare dataset. Excludes nurses, physician assistants, social workers, and occupational, physical, and speech therapists. Data is sourced from CMS’ Physician Compare website and Definitive Healthcare’s Physicians database. Accessed February 2020.
By 2014, that gender disparity was eliminated when the number of female and male graduates became equal. The most recent data available indicates that, in fact, more female students graduated from medical school than male students in 2016. If this trend continues, it’s likely that the physician market will become more populated with female doctors than male within the next few years.
What are the most popular medical specialties?
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid’s (CMS) Physician Compare data, approximately 626,400 of medical school graduates have gone on to become practicing physicians since 1990. Of those, over 136,000—or about 22 percent—have pursued internal medicine or family practice specialties.
Top physician specialties by number of medical school graduates from 1990 - 2016
Fig 2 Chart from Definitive Healthcare’s Expert Premium Content database. Data is based on 1.18 million providers with a National Provider Identifier (NPI) and a record in CMS’ Physician Compare dataset. Excludes nurses, physician assistants, social workers, and occupational, physical, and speech therapists. Data is sourced from CMS’ Physician Compare website and Definitive Healthcare’s Physicians database. Accessed February 2020.
Chiropractic medicine, emergency medicine, and anesthesiology were also among the top five most popular medical specialties in the U.S. between 1990 and 2016.
Interestingly, the most popular physician specialties don’t necessarily coincide with earning potential. According to a 2019 Medscape report, the top five highest-paid physician specialties are orthopedics, plastic surgery, otolaryngology, cardiology, and dermatology. In fact, none of these highest-paid specialties appear in the above list.
This could be, in part, because doctors begin training in these highly-specialized fields in years one or two of their residency programs—well after their medical school graduation. It is, perhaps, more likely the case that doctors are driven by their desire to help people and choose their specialties based primarily on this fact, and not earning potential.
What is the fastest growing medical specialty?
Between 2006 and 2016, a total of ten physician specialties have increased in number of medical school graduates by one percentage point or more. By this measure, optometry is the fastest growing physician specialty in the U.S.
In 2006, for instance, only 3.6 percent of medical school graduates in the U.S. declared an optometry specialty. By 2016, the total number of medical school graduates with an optometry specialty was 11 percent—for an annual increase of 7.37 percentage points.
Top 10 fastest-growing physician specialties
(by percentage point increase)
Psychology - Clinical Psychologist
Dietitian / Nutrition Professional
Fig 3 Table represents the fastest-growing physician specialties between 2006 and 2016 by annual increase in number of medical school graduates. Data is based on 1.18 million providers with a National Provider Identifier (NPI) and a record in CMS’ Physician Compare dataset. Excludes nurses, physician assistants, social workers, and occupational, physical, and speech therapists. Data is sourced from CMS’ Physician Compare website and Definitive Healthcare’s Physicians database. Accessed February 2020.
Interestingly, family practice and internal medicine—two of the most popular physician specialties—are also among the top five fastest-growing medical specialties in the U.S. With a 5.83 percent annual increase in medical school graduates between 2006 and 2016, family practice has the third-highest growth rate. Internal medicine follows closely behind, with a 5.57 percent annual growth rate.
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.
What does COVID-19 mean for the future of the physician market?
In March 2020, many medical schools—including Columbia, NYU Grossman School of Medicine, Tufts, Boston University School of Medicine, and Harvard Medical School—announced that they would be holding early graduation ceremonies for fourth-year medical students wanting to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
What this unexpected schedule change means for an entire class of new doctors is this: that the first months of their career will not be shaped by their chosen medical or surgical specialty, but by a national health crisis.
Given the current state of affairs, it is likely that the pandemic will delay the start of first-year residency programs. It’s also possible that the virus could affect this class of new physicians in other ways, as well.
With a novel virus to combat and an existing physician shortage, these new graduates have entered the field with an all-hands-on-deck approach to medicine. The situation demands that these doctors apply their available skills in all capacities, regardless of whether it aligns with their interests or chosen discipline.
It’s too soon to tell, but it is possible that this experience could influence first-year residents to change their intended specialty, or even impact the type of formal training that they receive within their residency programs.